“Before Dominica” by Cat Sparks
Friday night—not her favorite by a long shot. Saturdays are bad enough but Fridays are the worst. Ruby’s shift supposedly runs from eight till twelve, but midnight’s when the party’s getting started. Inner Sydney CBD, shakedowns, shoot-ups, drive-bys, drive-throughs. Rapid Uzi fire like popping corn.
She clocks off with her passkey when her shift comes to an end, but she doesn’t leave the building before dawn. First light—nature’s powerful detergent—washing away nightmares with the darkness.
She’s come to view this building as a living, breathing creature, with its cycles of light and heat and air control. Nobody cares if she’s inside, so long as she punches out by six. Six is when the clocks reset and people with better jobs than hers start drifting in all dolled up in smart suits. Six is when the shutters rise on the bulletproof coffee pod across the street and a hard-faced woman starts dispensing bitter espressos.
Ruby remembers the restaurant that used to occupy that space, all big glass windows and patisserie displays. Five-dollar coffees poured by handsome baristas in clean white shirts. Bagels or croissants baked that very morning.
This building used to be called Governors’ Tower, with a marble statue in the foyer and a row of low, wide, comfortable leather benches. A chic cafe tucked in behind the wall, filled with suited men and women. Morning meetings, voices raised above the hiss of cappuccino steam.
It’s eight-oh-one pm as she pauses at the foyer entrance, eyes adjusting to the muddy light. Hesitates. Half a dozen scattered shapes across cracked marble. Knows what they are without a closer look.
Not the first time there’s been a shootout at the Governor’s. She knows better than to call the cops—or building management. They’ll only make her give a statement, miss part of her shift or maybe all. Cleaners have been sacked for less, like the guy whose wife went into early labor, who came in late after rushing her to a clinic.
Blood pools on the shiny surface. Ruby treads with careful steps. Foyer cameras are all broken—CabbaJabba and Suthern Aces have long been using these shadows for their dealings.
Marble walls chipped with bullet holes. Governor Macquarie lost his head in ’45 due to a sudden influx of cheap ordnance.
Soundless on thin plastic soles, Ruby tiptoes, looking without looking, only seeing things she needs to see. Seven bodies, give or take, hard to tell when arms and legs are scattered.
Glinting, shiny metal near the stairwell. A gleaming handgun sitting on its own, barrel spun and facing the headless Governor.
She stops. Ruby Joy Canter does not like guns. The people who buy and use them frighten her. But so many recent nights in the shanty built on top of Rookwood Cemetery, when the flies are thick and the ancient Syrians she shares a crypt with become too scared to sleep, so many times she’s wished she had a gun. Something cold and steel and strong to grip between her palms. Something powerful to stand between her and the ones who bring this city to its knees.
Decisions made in a fraction of a second. Skips across the chipped, scratched marble, bends—almost a curtsey—slips the weapon into her apron pocket. Continues to the stairs like nothing happened.
Because nothing did happen. No one saw. Dead gang-bangers tell no tales, neither do headless Governors made of stone.
Up the stairs, two at a time, heavy metal banging on her thigh.
First task is to check the thermostats are functioning. Expensive machinery needs to be kept cool. She has to tick the numbers off a list and punch a code into a slim keypad.
Only then does she dip her hand, brush fingertips across the weapon’s casing. Another hour before she takes the gun and angles it high for close examination. Three bullets in the chamber, the rest gone into the bodies of the fallen and unlucky.
She knows a man who knows a woman who knows where guns like this one can be sold. The dead man doesn’t need a gun. She does. The Syrians do not need to know about her unexpected fortune. They’ll insist she hang on to the weapon, tell her she’ll feel much safer if she keeps it. She respects their opinions on these and other matters, based on the fact that they are still alive after coming so far and losing so very much.
Next, she is supposed to do the floors. Vacuum evidence of footprints off a patch of corridor carpet. Broad dusty tread from the soles of work boots rather than the usual business brogues. She drags the machine across two levels of back-to-back meeting rooms, always the best and worst part of her shift. Best because of catering scraps she’s supposed to throw away—but doesn’t. Worst because it all reminds her of Selene.
Ruby scrubs down awkward kitchenettes designed by people who never had to clean one, throws out clotted milk and moldy crusts. Picks protein bar wrappers and crushed Red Bull cans off linoleum. Scours unidentifiable smears off nondescript white walls and the surface of a large square meeting table. Rights a bunch of toppled chairs—kicked-over’s what it looks like. Some meetings are evidently rougher than others.
The air smells worse than usual. Whatever went on in here today, she doesn’t want to know. She hasn’t kept this job so long by minding other peoples’ business. The difference between her and Selene in a nutshell.
Selene was the queen of follow up. Asking questions, pushing for the answers. All data used to her advantage—along with the people she conned into supplying it. Always focused on the future, smart enough to see the writing on the wall, to picture waves of foreign capital and cheap labor, to grab on to Dominica with both hands.
Ruby pushes the vacuum back and forth. Wherever Selene is now, she’ll be well fed. Definitely not cleaning office floors for five-fifty an hour. She will not be hiding in the shadows, waiting for dawn to break so she can slink back to a stinking graveyard shanty.
The vacuum growls, a lonely moan in room after empty room. Ruby hasn’t always been a cleaner. Before Dominica, she shared an office in the Governor’s Protocol division. A rectangular desk and a promising CV, a sliver of ocean visible between towers rendered uninhabitable by rising waters. Left in place with destabilized foundations, active seismic damping on the fritz with no one willing to foot the repair bill.
Before Dominica, machines did most of the cleaning jobs in town but these days human beings come so much cheaper.
Ruby works when she’s sick, she works when she’s tired, she works when she’s got nowhere else to go. When the Rookwood shantytown becomes too hot and flyblown.
The handle of one of the meeting rooms is smeared with what looks like blood. The door’s ajar. Ruby turns the vacuum off and pushes.
Her heart lifts—on the table, half a tray of little sandwich triangles, only a few with curled, dried crusts. Beside the tray, dirty coffee cups and a plate of thick brown nutty chocolate biscuits.
Business-like, she tugs two plastic bags from her apron pocket, divides the leftover food into equal portions. Stuffs them into the daypack, wrapped securely, on top of the gun. Half for the Syrians—that’s all they’ll accept.
Times she comes home empty-handed, they never say a word. Not so much as a bitter glance, always offering the blessings of their god. She expects they take the thin soup offered by Reoccupy—Rookwood’s ragtag branch of rebels. Once or twice she’s been desperate enough herself. Reoccupy feed anyone who will listen to their bullshit fantasies—one day this and one day that. There is no day, no future and no change. Dominica owns everything except the washed-up corpses and the rats.
Ruby tries a little harder, knowing she might be all those old folks have. Gives her something to care about on the days that living no longer seems worth the effort.
She vacuums the floor and the corridor outside, dragging clumsy machinery behind. Carpets done, she checks the kitchenettes.
A sink stuffed full of brittle plastic cups. Beside the bin, another treasure—half a bottle of flat Veuve Clicquot brut yellow. She’s had a taste of it once before, with Selene, and the memory almost makes her smile.
Selene loved bubbles. Her signature drink, she said bubbles got you drunk faster than anything. So many memories linger near—how they used to meet in that snooty restaurant, annoying waiters, sitting on drinks for hours across lunch. Before Dominica, when friends looked out for one another. Before Dominica. Before everything changed.
Selene rose quickly through Dominica’s ranks, whereas Ruby tripped and stumbled through the cracks. Selene was always on her back about it, how she wasn’t career-focused, how she squandered opportunities, how you had to grab it when it was hot—whatever it was.
Selene knew all about that heat, looking good with her coiffed blonde hair, ridiculous shoes, and suits that appeared more tailored than was likely. Like somebody out of a brochure, whereas Ruby got swallowed easily by a crowd. Back then it didn’t seem to matter, like so many other things. Who could have known that jobs would evaporate alongside all those glittering golden beaches? Who could have imagined the center of Sydney’s CBD no longer crowded with cafes and takeaway sushi?
Ruby’s packing up the battered vacuum when more stains on the carpet become apparent. Thick and crusty, might be human blood. Hesitantly, she follows the splatter trail, which stops abruptly at the end of a corridor. A bloody handprint on the door marked ‘Executive Boardroom.’
The door’s ajar but she doesn’t go inside. Instinct screams at her to walk, to forget what she has seen. All of it.
Ruby logs off on the data pad, her tasks for the evening finally complete. That bloody handprint lingers in her memory. Dim lights flicker along the corridor ahead. Nearly midnight and, despite that bloody print, she knows she’s safer inside this building than outside.
She doubles back for the champagne bottle. Alert and listening, daypack slung across her back. Shoulders the heavy, creaking door to enter the dank and musty stairwell. No need for the penlight torch, but she brings it just in case. Nothing here but scurrying rats. Heartbeat louder than it should be, but no bloodied handprint is going to spoil her night.
The top two floors of the Governor’s Tower are no longer in use but they can still be accessed by fire escape. No electricity, but you don’t need lights in Sydney. Enough floods in through the big glass windows. Security arcs sweep back and forth across the sky until the sun comes up.
City bleeding light in all directions, enough to keep those neon logos fired. Dominica burning, branded on the skyline 24/7. Only streetlights stay dead and broken, only huddled suburban enclaves lie still in shameful, consolatory darkness.
Forty-one is where they used to hold the Protocol receptions, back when the fat stone Governor had his head. Deep blue carpet of imported Berber wool, big glass windows, 180 degrees. Before Dominica, that sunshine view was worth a million dollars. The world’s best harbor fresh with sailboats. Superliners big as country towns.
Protocol Division used to throw impressive, fully catered parties. King Gustaf of Sweden and the President of Croatia, some woman with an unpronounceable name. Tennis, golf, and football heroes. Nobody gives away food these days. Nothing’s free—not even friendship, the one thing you might have thought would endure through desperate, apocalyptic times.
Forty-one is beautiful despite it all and more. All those pretty, winking lights like a sea of glittering gems. Pinprick diamonds bobbing on the water, the flotilla of permanently clustered refugee barges. A ring around the foreshore at the 1k limit, brown like a filthy bathtub stain. But you can’t see any of that by night, just as you can’t see the dead things floating, washing up on what remains of the beaches.
Sometimes Ruby perches atop what was once an executive’s desk, stares out across the city she used to love. Through gaps in the buildings to the string of small boats anchored tip to toe. Watching the lights wink on and off, unable to imagine the harsh lives lived on board. She’d long given up on news reports, unable to stomach such concentrated human misery.
Thin brown bodies washing up on ragged rocks—Ruby’s seen the evidence, just like she’s watched well-fed faces on various broadcast media explaining how come they have no right to come here. No matter that their own countries have been obliterated, by rising tides or bleeding radiation. Hurricanes… war… She’s lost track of who is fighting who, or what for. The old worlds are gone forever, former means and ways are long gone too. They’d had it all so very good and they threw it all away like so much garbage.
Tonight, she sits cross-legged on the big square scarf she’s spread out like a springtime picnic blanket. Champagne warm and flat but it does the trick. Carpet dusty and not too clean. The scarf was a gift from the old Syrians, once belonging to their daughter Nour who never made it as far as these troubled Australian waters.
Ruby eats three precious sandwich triangles, chewing slowly, savoring each bite.
With the bottle empty and her face comfortably numb, she thinks about the gang-bangers all shot up and bleeding in the foyer. Of the gun she dropped into her apron pocket like it was nothing more than a penlight torch. Fumbles in her pack below her stash of salvaged food, holds it up in a shaft of silver light. An artefact from the deadly wicked city.
She grips it tightly, cold against her chest, feels the power inherent in its form. She’s going to have to part with it, but right here, right now, with the city spread below her, she can dream.
Remembering Selene as she drains the final swallow. Champagne breakfast on Cockatoo Island, a picnic blanket at Lady Macquarie’s Chair, smoking weed and laughing at Japanese wedding parties, brides in white on package marriage tours. Selene in tight pencil skirt, mimicking Dominica’s Hugo Boss. Workwear far above her pay grade. Gotta look the part, said Selene, kicking off her ridiculous shoes. Girl’s gotta do… come on, you know the drill. Only Ruby never did get that drill down proper, not like baby-faced Selene. She was never prepared to go that extra mile.
Selene had laughed in the face of Dominica’s flagrant infiltration. “They might have bought up Sydney town but they don’t know how to use it,” she’d snarked through mouthfuls of champagne swigged straight from the bottle, warm. “They don’t know what makes this old town tick. We’ll be able to use them—just you watch.”
Selene with all her promises. Selene with all her lies. Selene who, at first opportunity, switched camps and sold the rest of them down the river.
Ruby’s contemplating one more sandwich when something thumps in an empty office up the farthest end of Forty-one. Rats, most likely. The walls are riddled with them, making nests in chairs in long-forgotten hallways.
Human voices, low and agitated. Ruby freezes, unable to move, knowing she should scramble quick for cover. Drop down behind the abandoned executive’s desk.
Terrorists—next thing she thinks of—suicide-bombers come to blow the Governor back to god. Skin flushed hot with a wave of fear—Ruby does not wish to die for a cause she doesn’t even know about. She hates Dominica with all her soul but that doesn’t mean she wants to feel it burn.
Voices cease as abruptly as they started. What if it’s building management stumbling in on her little secret? Coming after her food. Her job. Her dignity.
Her arms and legs are numb with shame. Forty-one—how could she ever be so careless? Risking everything for a picnic and a million-dollar view.
Ears pricked up for the smallest clue but there’s no point. Nothing to do but wait. She’s sat through situations worse. Like three long months clinging to crumbs—would she be one of the lucky ones, scoring a job cleaning floors, or be cast out to the wolves like most of them. Three long months of former colleagues refusing to catch her eye. Twenty years of friendship up in smoke. Ruby Joy Canter decommissioned like some busted piece of junk. Like none of it had ever mattered.
Her head is fuzzy from tepid alcohol. Camembert from the sandwiches lingers. Tastes belonging to better times and better days.
Too late. A creaking door and a figure staggers, stepping into light cast by other buildings. Ruby just has time to cover the gun.
Silhouette of a woman with messed-up hair and stockinged feet. Pressing both hands against her side. Closer, dark stains soaking through her suit and blouse.
She stops as soon as she sees Ruby, breath lodged in her throat. Stands as still as the Governor’s headless statue.
A man emerges, thin face in shadow. Doesn’t notice Ruby on the floor. Tapping at his ear trying to get a signal.
“Still jammed,” he says. “You having any luck?”
The woman nods in Ruby’s direction.
“Shit.” He’s looking around, frantic for something—an exit or a weapon. The woman reaches out to him. “No. Wait.”
Low moans escape the room behind them. The man hurries back through the doorway. The woman glances after him, briefly, her attention fully taken up with Ruby.
“Hello there,” she says.
Ruby doesn’t answer.
“We’re in trouble,” the woman continues, enunciating clearly. “We have to find a way out of this building. Before anybody finds us here. Can you help?”
Ruby opens her mouth, then shuts it, taken by surprise. That bloody handprint on that boardroom door.
“Those dead guys in the foyer…” she says softly, but her voice trails off. Stops herself before she says the wrong thing.
The woman doesn’t seem to hear, looks to the room behind, calls out “Matias, how’s Subra doing?”
His reply unintelligible.
The woman glances back to Ruby.
Matias calls out. The woman runs to him.
Ruby moves, slips the gun into her apron pocket. She could never bring herself to shoot. Not even to save herself. Better they don’t know she has a gun. Guns change everything and things are worse than bad enough already.
She’s standing when the woman emerges with Matias. The man called Subra is slumped between them, eyes closed, face twisted with pain, shirt sodden with blood.
“The desk,” says the woman.
Ruby backs out of the way as they half drag the injured man and lay him down.
“Hello… hello… goddamnit.” Matias taps at his ear with agitation.
The woman looks around in desperation, spies the Syrians’ square of faded cloth. Points and says to Ruby “Give me that.”
Ruby hesitates, then bends to pick up Nour’s scarf.
The woman snatches it from her hands, tears it into bandages. “Help me. We’ve got to stop the bleeding.”
Ruby helps. Blood spurts everywhere, all over everything. A bullet wound to the stomach—not the first Ruby has seen. Subra’s not going to make it very far.
“Put your hands here. Press!”
Ruby presses Syrian cloth against the welling wound, aware of the woman’s sharp stare as she works.
“Oh sweet Jesus—Ruby, is that you? Ruby Canter?”
The woman’s eyes are wide, her mouth half open. Ruby can’t believe it either—a face so different and yet so utterly familiar.
Her voice lowers. “I don’t go by that name anymore, but yes, it’s me. I almost didn’t… I never would have…”
Selene wipes her face with her wrist, leaving a thin smear of Subra’s blood. “Please Ruby, you’ve got to help us. I’m trying to remember. Didn’t there used to be a way up to the roof?”
“Still is,” says Ruby. “But the door is locked. You need a passkey.”
Selene nods. “Do you have one?”
Ruby doesn’t know if her cleaner’s passkey gives her rooftop access. She’s never pushed her luck by going outside. She’s not sure if Selene is really Selene, if any of this is really happening.
“Yeah, I got one.”
Subra moans in agony, Matias keeps shouting loudly at his earpiece.
“Alpha One to Skyshift Four—do you copy? Alpha One to Skyshift Four—come in.” Repeating over and over. He looks as though he hasn’t slept in days.
“You look good, Ruby” says Selene, all teeth. “Nice to see you’re still working here.”
“Kind of,” says Ruby stiffly. No thanks to you. The warm champagne has clouded up her senses. Everything is happening too fast.
Selene’s crisp gray corporate uniform is torn in several places. Her hair looks like a nest of twigs and leaves.
Ruby has never seen her former friend so vulnerable. She wants to ask a million questions but doesn’t have the words. Not yet. She’s lost the habit of saying what she thinks out loud, talking back not being a survival trait.
“We’ll pay,” cuts in Matias. “Cash money. Name your price.”
Matias and Selene do not look like the kind of people who carry cash money on their persons.
“Do you remember Cockatoo Island,” Ruby says after a long pause. “I go back there often in my head.”
“What?” Selene stares at her blankly.
Matias’ earpiece negotiations oscillate between English and a foreign tongue as the trio trip and stagger for the stairwell. Sounds Korean—some of Ruby’s Rookwood neighbors are refugees from North. Most hail from Vietnam and Indonesia.
Ruby’s heart pounds as they near the stairs. What will happen if her passkey doesn’t work? If Subra bleeds to death in front of them?
The door clicks and the light goes green. Selene throws her shoulder hard against dark-painted wood. Then they’re up the stairs, Matias continuing negotiations, Selene telling Subra that it’s all OK, they’re going to get him if he can just hang on.
Ruby follows, still struggling with all of it. That Selene is here—desperate to save a bleeding man—and Ruby’s risking everything to help them.
Footsteps echo on concrete. Matias throws his weight against the door and a blast of cold air hits her face. Sirens wail from the streets below. Wind snatches at her short gray hair.
Ruby’s never been so high above street level. More beautiful even than the view from Forty-one, with dawn streaking pink across the sky.
Matias shouts and swears into his earpiece. Selene’s face is smooth and clear, barely aged across the decade. Doesn’t look a day past thirty. Ruby has not been so lucky. Her hands are those of an old woman, bags under her eyes dark etched and permanent.
Subra’s head lolls every time he moans. Selene cups his cheeks between her palms. “Stay with me!”
Matias yelps and points excitedly between two dark skyscrapers. Ruby squints at a black emerging shape. A chopper. Matias’ rapid-fire negotiations have not been for nothing.
No room for the chopper to put down. A rescue harness winches from the machine’s underbelly. Ruby has only seen such things on television. Matias and Selene strap Subra in. Selene kisses him gently on the forehead.
“What happened here tonight?” asks Ruby, shouting as Subra is lifted skywards.
Neither Matias nor Selene answer. They stare upwards, lips pressed thin in concentration, clearly uncertain of the machine’s intentions.
Crisp morning air blows in off the water, banishes champagne fog from Ruby’s head. “Selene, I need to know what this is all about. Did you kill someone? Are you in trouble with Dominica?”
Selene says nothing, doesn’t turn her head, full attention focused on the chopper.
Ruby waits with the kind of patience poverty entrenches. Repeats the question, shouting loudly this time.
“Give her your Rolex,” snaps Selene matter-of-factly to Matias. “That should cover it.”
Cover it? All the gold on Earth could never cover it.
Anger curdling like lava. “Selene, I’m talking to you.”
Selene’s silence is louder than the helicopter blades.
‘Selene—it’s me. I just helped you out of Forty-one. We grew up on the same damn street. My mother used to cut your hair. Your brother was the first boy I ever kissed—why won’t you even look at me?”
Selene doesn’t budge.
Matias shifts his weight uncomfortably. Unclasps his golden watch and holds it up.
Ruby ignores him. “Did you ever think of me at all, ever wonder how I managed to survive? You know how Dominica treats its excess citizens. Pay cops shoot on sight—someone told me you drafted that policy.” She steps up closer. “Come on, Selene. At least tell me that rumor isn’t true.”
The helicopter drops a clinking, metallic ladder. Selene reaches up as it unfurls. Matias steps closer, helps to hold it steady. “I’m sorry,” he shouts to Ruby. “You gonna be okay?”
Ruby isn’t ever going to be okay again. She’ll be sacked once her passkey is identified as the one that opened the stairwell. Cash she’ll get for a presumed-stolen Rolex won’t last more than a fortnight—if she even makes it out of the building. If those wailing sirens aren’t for her.
“Selene, take me with you—please!”
Matias throws her a sorry look. Hooks his arms through the ladder, tosses the watch and grips on tight. Ruby catches it from pure reflex as he shouts at something crackling through his earpiece.
Selene does the same thing with her arms. She doesn’t look at Ruby, she looks up.
“I have a gun,” shouts Ruby over the whumping repetition of the blades. When neither answer, she steps forward. Pulls the weapon from her apron pocket. Fumbles, points, takes aim. Edges closer as she doesn’t trust her skinny, shaking fingers.
Selene’s face is placid, like Rookwood’s cold stone angels. No panic. No comprehension. Ten years coddled in Dominica’s fold has rendered her untouchable. Invincible.
Ruby grips the gun with both hands, tight. Shoots until all bullets have hit home. Matias screams as Selene falls and Ruby walks away, not waiting to see whatever happens next.
Thick air, whipped wind, spinning blades and sirens. She shoves the door, skips down the steps, plastic soles on concrete echo loud. All the way to the base of Governor’s Tower, out through heavy, creaking fire doors.
Out on the street, gun clutched hard against her chest.
Before Dominica, Ruby could never have taken a human life.
Before Dominica. After Selene.
Before she finally snapped and let it go.
On Bent Street, strangers leap out of her way. She’s not going to sell the gun. Not now. She holds it high and proud and deadly. The time has come to smack some sense into Reoccupy’s ineffectual soup ladlers. They’re not much of an army, but they’ll do.
Oblivious to the sirens and the shouting, Ruby Joy Canter tilts her face to bathe in Dominica’s gentle neon grace.
Cat Sparks is a multi-award-winning Australian author, editor, and artist. Career highlights include attaining a PhD in science fiction and climate fiction, five years as Fiction Editor of Cosmos Magazine, running Agog! Press, working as an archaeological dig photographer in Jordan, studying with Margaret Atwood, 75 published short stories, a collection and a far-future novel, Lotus Blue. She directed two speculative fiction festivals for WritingNSW and is a regular panellist & speaker at SF events.