In a city of poverty and destruction, with no government or infrastructure, everywhere submerged by water, full of immigrants unable to communicate, dogs became the one thing men and women could rely on -- the last vestiges of loyalty in a wasted planet. Most people congregated centrally in high rise buildings and tried to survive, protected by their dogs -- if they were lucky enough to have one. But Festinger was different. He remained on the outside, spending his days in the country living off the rats and rabbits he caught in his traps. He would happily paddle his kayak from one piece of exposed land to the next with Rosetta, formerly a guide dog, that Festinger had rescued and was now a trusted friend.
When a gang of vigilantes cornered Festinger, threatened him with a pack of rabid rottweilers and kidnapped Rosetta, he was determined to track her down no matter how, so he could gather her up in his arms once again. But he had no idea where to begin. That's when he met Cindy, a sex worker from Bosnia now making a living as a translator. She was well travelled and an experienced guide. They crossed paths in a clearing on the edge of the city as he began his search. She called to him from dry land as he happened to pass by and because he was immediately attracted to her he pulled up and let her on board.
'I know how to find your dog,' she said, after they had exchanged pleasantries. 'She'll be in a skyscraper with one of the gangs. They hoard the animals and sell them. If they're special and can be controlled they'll use the dogs as bodyguards to subdue the people. If you help me get food, I'll show you.'
They paddled into the centre of town where there was a cluster of towers dominating the skyline. They explored multiple tower blocks until finally they came across a kid leaning out of a third-floor window smoking a cigarette, catching some rays.
He said, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, there's a guy called Ferdinand who holds things down from the top floor. He trades in dogs and rules the building with an iron fist. Anyway, I'll bet he has your dog.'
Festinger doubted it. He'd scoured the city for so long but with no luck. Yet he wasn't close to giving up, so he moored his boat and he and Cindy climbed the fifty-five floors to the top of the skyscraper. When they reached the summit, they found an open plan area with people in rags lying on the ground, still, as if stuck in the sands of time. They looked broken. On a raised platform at the far end was a man in an ornate chair surrounded by dogs and to his side was a giant cage with all kinds of canines crammed together -- paws and dried up noses poking out of the wire meshing. The dogs were in agony. It was then that he spotted Rosetta. She was sitting upright next to Ferdinand as he stroked her with a filthy hand. She stared ahead fixedly.
In order to blend into the crowd Festinger and Cindy took a seat on the concrete and discussed a plan.
'We have to kill Ferdinand,' said Cindy, 'look what he's done to these people and the poor trapped dogs. It's a disgrace. We have to set them all free.'
'Hey,' said Festinger, 'I just want my dog back, I don't want any trouble.'
'Well things have changed.'
'We can't get to him anyway; he's surrounded by vicious animals.'
'Yes, but we have an insider -- Rosetta.'
They quietly put a plan together so no one could eavesdrop and then they got to their feet. It seemed as if all eyes in the room turned to them as they moved through the tangle of bodies and approached Ferdinand on his stage.
As they neared, the dogs guarding their leader stood to attention and began to growl, spittle dripping from their exposed teeth. Rosetta betrayed some confusion in her body language, clearly recognising Festinger, but still showing loyalty to her current owner.
Ferdinand called out to Festinger and Cindy in German and Cindy translated. 'He says what do you want?'
'I want a dog.'
'What will you give me for it?'
'I have nothing.'
'Then give me the girl and you can have your choice.'
'The girl is not for sale.'
'Then leave, you're wasting my time.'
'I can't leave without my dog. You stole it from me and I want it back.'
'Which dog do you think is yours?'
'That one by your left foot.'
'This dog? This dog is yours? I don't think so. I trained this dog myself,' Ferdinand said, crouching down and ruffling Rosetta's neck. 'No, no, this dog is mine.'
'Rosetta, attack!' Festinger screamed and as if a switch had flicked inside Rosetta, she leapt at Ferdinand and bit into his neck, severing his jugular, causing blood to gush out in all directions. Ferdinand's men and their dogs leapt to attention and circled around Rosetta and Festinger. But Rosetta wouldn't be cowed, and her ferocity intimidated her enemies and kept them at bay, giving Cindy just enough time to unhook the keys to the cage from Ferdinand's belt and then race to free the trapped dogs. Chaos ensued as the dogs escaped their confines in a state of mania only to be faced down by Ferdinand's guard dogs. The two groups of dogs fought each other in a ferocious battle while Ferdinand's henchmen looked on helplessly -- powerless without their protection. Dogs lacerated each other's flesh, slashing and scratching until all that was left was limp whimpering bodies, and blood scattered everywhere in clotted pools. Ferdinand's men raised their hands above their head and waited for orders.
Cindy and Festinger were stunned but unharmed. The mass of people on the floor all watched the scene open-mouthed. After the carnage, Festinger gave Rosetta a big hug, getting smeared with blood from her mouth.
Festinger introduced Cindy to his dog but Rosetta leant back and growled. 'Don't worry about her,' he said, 'she's still traumatised. Let's go.'
But before they could make a move an old woman with silver eyes blocked their path and spoke in Hebrew. Cindy translated.
'She says you can't leave. You must lead us now.'
'What are you talking about? All I came here for is my dog.'
'You will be greatly rewarded. You will have free reign over the building and we, as your followers, will do as you say.'
'But I don't deserve your loyalty, I haven't done anything.'
'You have liberated us from a tyrant. Now, with you in charge, we will enter the golden age.'
'I'm sorry, but no.'
Festinger led his dog to the exit but the crowd of people surrounded him. They began to chant and beat their fists into the palms of their hands. 'Stay! Stay!'
Festinger whispered to Cindy, 'let's stick around and eat but we'll slip out once it's dark.'
But that night there was no opportunity to escape. Day after day passed and they were still unable to secure their freedom until eventually they got used to life on the fifty-fifth floor. They figured there was nothing for them on the outside anyway. Festinger reluctantly took his place on Ferdinand's chair as Cindy and Rosetta were positioned either side of him. Cindy had to be separated from Rosetta as she simply couldn't win her trust. Festinger eventually became more confident in his role as leader, comfortable making decisions and giving orders -- organising food rations, clothing and of course dogs. But people, initially delighted with the direction of the new regime, became a little concerned when he began to use Ferdinand's former henchmen to round up dogs for everyone. The vigilantes of the old regime seemed to seamlessly change loyalties and in no way did they pose a threat to Festinger's dominance. And so, Festinger's followers were convinced he was just trying to ensure everyone was assigned a pet and using experienced men was a sensible method. The people on the top floor felt vindicated when one by one they were given an animal.
It was when food became scarce and people began to starve that some began to think twice about their situation.
Festinger would lounge in his chair, picking at the lining of the armrest -- his men behind him, surrounded by dogs -- and listened to his followers who had queued up to speak to their leader.
'Please,' one old woman wearing a shawl over her gaunt face said, 'all our rations are gone. I know you're a good man but even Ferdinand kept us fed.'
'So what you're saying is you want to return to the bad old days, living in fear?' Festinger said.
'No, no, I was just ...'
'You were just what?'
'She's hungry Festinger,' said Cindy, 'she's entitled to say her piece.'
'Don't you dare contradict me in front of my followers, Cindy. You are a translator and that's all. You have no business in these affairs. Madam, I will try to remedy the situation and I have an idea how to go about doing it. But for now you're going to have to sit tight.'
And then within days slabs of meat were dumped before Festinger's chair and everyone was encouraged to take their fair share. The people were giddy with excitement at the prospect of a wholesome meal, that they didn't even think to question where the food came from.
Joy spread through the upper floor for once and people couldn't hide their satisfaction.
'Where did you get the meat, Festinger?' Cindy asked.
'Does it matter?' he replied. 'Look how happy everyone is. This is what leading is all about. And why aren't you eating? Come on dig in.'
'No thank you, I like to know what's going in my mouth first. Frankly I'd rather starve.'
'Suit yourself,' Festinger said, shoving a bloody piece of liver into his mouth.
It truly was the golden age. Children played with abandon, chasing their dogs until they fell to their knees in exhaustion. Families came together, hugged and told stories around fires. Men drank hooch and sang songs deep into the night. Festinger looked on proudly as Rosetta played with a plastic toy elephant day after day. Compared to the hardship they had suffered before, the people were leading blissful lives.
And yet it didn't last. Things changed when dogs began to go missing. A man with a ponytail, wearing a tired suit and taped-up spectacles approached Festinger and said, 'I've looked everywhere for Jumbo, on almost every floor. The thing is he's so docile he never goes far. It's not like him.'
'It's a big building I'm sure he'll turn up somewhere,' said Festinger.
'Maybe, but I'm not the only one. Quite a few of us are missing dogs now. Something's going on.'
'I advise you to keep your mouth shut before you whip everyone up into a frenzy. Forget about your dog. Now bugger off.'
That night when everyone was asleep Cindy woke from a shallow slumber and raised herself from her position by the platform and saw that Festinger, his men and Rosetta were gone. Then she heard a squeal from the far end of the floor but all she could see were vague silhouettes on the wall that suddenly vanished. She tiptoed over sleeping bodies -- dogs and their owners alike -- and descended the building, floor by floor, until she heard barking. Cindy poked her head around a door. She saw Festinger's men standing by a cage with three or four dogs trapped inside, urgently pacing back and forth. In the centre of the room was a pile of bloodied dead dogs. Rosetta was there, straining at her leash. Festinger tried to hold her in check, struggling to control the force of his dog. One of the men opened the cage and allowed a dog out. The dog tentatively stepped out of the cage and sniffed the floor. He looked back into the cage as it was closed behind him. Festinger released Rosetta who immediately raced towards the freed dog and jumped on him, mauling her victim, who barely resisted as he was ripped apart. The men, including Festinger, broke out into hysterics.
'Is this your idea of fun?' Cindy said. All the men turned to her.
'Who said you could come down from the top floor?' Festinger said.
'I suppose this is your way of maintaining the golden age?'
'And who are you to question me? My methods work. I'll do whatever it takes to please my followers.'
'If the people really knew your horrific methods they would turn against you just like they did with Ferdinand. What's happened to you? And look what you've done to Rosetta. You're both brutal murderers.'
'You have no idea what it means to lead -- everyone expecting you to come up with answers which simply aren't there. So, you have to find a way.'
'Yes, and killing is your way.'
'You're damn right, because that's the reality of survival.'
'I don't think your followers would see it like that.'
'Well they'll never know will they. Because you won't utter a word of this to anyone, am I understood?'
Festinger hooked the leash back around Rosetta's neck and turned the dog to face Cindy. The dog was strangely calm -- her usual aggression towards Cindy seemingly dispelled. But Cindy got the message.
'OK, OK,' she said. 'I'll keep quiet. I promise.'
'Glad we understand each other. Right, that's enough fun for today boys,' said Festinger, 'let's pack up and return to our positions upstairs. We need to get some sleep.'
When Festinger woke up, he wiped his eyes, stretched for a murky bottle of vodka and took a swig. He reached down to stroke Rosetta. She wasn't there. He looked up and saw Cindy wasn't in her place either. On the platform was the plastic toy elephant full of bite marks.
'Rosetta,' he called out. 'Rosetta!'
Cindy and the dog had gone. They had escaped together. And Rosetta didn't protest because Cindy had taken stolen moments over the last few months, whenever Festinger was absent, to step by step train the dog to feel comfortable in her presence. She had used the toy elephant to get close to Rosetta, so they could play and gradually become friends. Cindy believed that the brutality with which Festinger had encouraged in Rosetta meant the dog cried out for love and attention. And Cindy provided it. So much so that Rosetta willingly followed Cindy out of the building away from her former owner, someone she had loved and depended on for so long. Cindy couldn't let Rosetta or any other dog be abused in the future. The killing had to stop. Whether it would or not she didn't know, but she had to make a stand.
As Cindy paddled away from Festinger's high rise and out past the edge of town, Rosetta snuggled up to her, resting her blood-caked head on her lap. Cindy wondered what would happen to Festinger and the many friends she had made in her time on the fifty-fifth floor -- whether Festinger's reign would be ended by rebellion or whether the followers would sink into further subservience. Either way she knew Festinger would be lost without his dog.
Cindy and Rosetta were headed for a new life and as clouds congregated above, casting dark shadows on the water, life for them was still uncertain. Because the problem that comes with wanting to escape is you don't necessarily focus on where you're going. But that's the reality of survival.