Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Ghosts of the Fall

A warm current rolled in overnight, bringing with it the stench of death. When I awoke at dawn, my nose and mouth were thick with foul-tasting mucus. Gagging, I rolled over and reached for my stained filtermask. When it was in place, I struggled from my hammock and squinted from the arbour of my room. The sun, eclipsed by the shadowy bulk of a vine-tangled building, was feeble and brown, but enough of its light filtered between the towers to allow a rough study.

Plumes of steam rose from the waters far below, which, although slightly lower in level than they had been the night before, still drowned the groundward floors of the city. Black shapes hunted lazily, deceptively small from my altitude: crocs, searching for food.

A dull flash of light from the top of the opposite building caught my eye. Davo was up already, adjusting his solar panels. Every drop of energy was precious, even that which struggled through poisoned clouds on a day such as this. Rubbing my eyes and trying in vain to make the seal of my mask comfortable against cheekbones and jaw, I prepared to face the morning.

A warm current and a brown dawn, I thought. Someone, or something, will die today . . .

Max, my foster, had been up and working for some time. He greeted me as I emerged from the access stairway in the centre of the rooftop garden.

“‘Morning, Hogarth.” He put down his hoe in order to wipe the sweat from his brow. Viewed from the top of the building, Sol was a malign ball hovering low over the yellow-smudged horizon. Although I knew the colour was caused by pollution and dust in the lower atmosphere, I couldn’t help but feel as though the sun itself had been corrupted. Under its light, Max looked twenty years older: his skin was pallid and blotchy, and his white hair seemed thinner than cobwebs.

I could almost see the leaves of our plants withering along with us.

“Whew,” I said, wrinkling my nose. “Bad tides.”

Max shrugged. “Got to have them, I suppose. Balances the good times.”

“Kris’ll be disappointed.”

Max’s brown eyes crinkled. Kris Parker, one of the joint chiefs of our community, had a theory that the ecosystem was gradually stabilising. Bad tides, which occurred about once every month or so, confounded him.

“This ain’t nothing on the old days.” Max picked up the hoe again and tilted his hat to ward off the sun. “I don’t suppose you remember it that well.”

I didn’t, although I’d heard the stories often enough. “Has Davo been over?”

“Earlier. He was asking for you. Take the morning off, if you want to go see him.”

“Thanks, Max. I’ll make it up.”

“No worries, son. Have a little fun for a change.”

He bent back to his work. For a thoughtful moment I, the youngest in the community, studied him, the eldest. We made an odd couple, but I knew I’d miss him when he succumbed. The thought alone was unpleasant. Max had been my foster for so many years that I had almost forgotten my real father. But whether I liked it or not, poison or accident would take him in the end, as they took everyone.

Perhaps he noticed my scrutiny, or sensed my mood.

“Git,” he said, without lifting his head, “before I put you to work.”

I pulled a face and ran off through the garden and down the access ladder, mindful of the broken rungs. From the third floor down stretched a rope bridge to the building in which Davo lived. I ran across, not looking down, and was exactly halfway when the earthquake hit.

But for the bells, I would’ve had no warning. With a gentle clatter at first, then with a strident jangling, every metal mobile and brass clapper in the city began to sound. I clutched the sides of the bridge and wrapped a rope around my ankle. As the quake set the bridge jumping, I hung on for dear life, too frightened to open my eyes, thinking of crocs and poisoned currents.

There came a deep, resonant bong, and I realised with a chill of fear that the old Cathedral bell was sounding, as it hadn’t more than once in my memory. Great Fred chimed four times in two minutes, and those two minutes felt like a lifetime to me, suspended between two derelict skyscrapers by little more than homespun string. Beneath the ringing, I could hear masonry falling and screams, some distant, some near; all perhaps reliving the Fall.

When the clatter died down and the shocks faded, I released the breath I hadn’t known I was holding and crawled the rest of the way to Davo’s building. Once over the threshold, I lay trembling in the darkness, trying not to cry.

• • • •

I am too young to have memories of the War, but I do faintly recall the Fall: the clouds that covered the sky, the months of darkness, the constant tremors. I dream occasionally of the nine waves that swept the old world away. Sometimes I even see the face of my long-dead father as he presses me into an elevator crammed with women, heading for higher ground.

The elders of Adelaide didn’t talk about these times, except in whispers. Much of my knowledge regarding the origins of our community was overheard and therefore patchy and incomplete. I suspect that, given time and allowing me descendants, it would have developed into a full-blown mythology. I truly believed that ogres had attacked us from the sky, hurling rocks upon our heads and leaving us to drown, cursed with childlessness and disease.

It wasn’t until I was about eleven years old that Davo sat me down and filled in a few blanks. He explained that the “ogres” had been the forces of the OEG, the Off Earth Government; that there had been just one massive rock, like an iceberg; and that the sterility and sickness were the results of radiation and industrial poisons set free by the Fall.

The descent of that single rock marked a decisive end to the long and bitter war between Earth and space. Davo spoke of melting icecaps, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and shifting continental plates. I understood very little of what he said, and in a way I was glad, for the words themselves sounded grim. Some things, however, I could understand. What we called magnetic north had once been southwest. Inconstant seasons were the result of a new wobble to the Earth’s axis. Every time it rained or a calved iceberg drifted near us, I wondered whether it was composed of water from Earth or from space. And the reason why we, the citizens of Adelaide, had no visitors was because no one else was left.

On the roofs of our flooded city we lingered, alone and forgotten.

A fluke of geography had kept the buildings from falling. Currents of clean, cold water flowing from the melting Antarctic icecap kept us from being poisoned. We survived on plants grown from seedlings found on nearby islands. The islands — which had once been hilltops — were themselves uninhabitable due to a proliferation of waste, but they had provided valuable resources during the early years. As our numbers dwindled from the original thousand to a bare one hundred, we learned to manage our crops better, and even bred chickens to balance our diet.

Few ever forgot the fact that we had survived the Fall by nothing short of a miracle, or that our existence was still tenuous. We were reminded of that every time the Earth’s new tilt precipitated a shift in currents and we received a flow of the dreaded warm tide. On such occasions, we were forced to rely on tank water until the tides once again turned — although other species, such as the giant crocs from the nearby islands, enjoyed the poisonous current. Strange mutants, rotting and twisted, were carried by the dark waters; poor food by any creature’s standards, but something where little existed elsewhere.

Kris Parker had a list of the things that should have killed us — and could still do so — which he showed to anyone who began to forget the legacy of the past. Most just learned to hide the scars a little better and got on with life — as though we had always lived on the tops of buildings in the middle of a shallow, fresh-water ocean.

Except in my dreams of the Fall, we always had. That was the trouble with being fifteen years old when the world was ten years dead.

• • • •

Max and I lived in one of the smaller buildings on the outskirts of the flooded city. Davo’s was much larger. A monster of more than sixty storeys, its upper levels were stepped and thick with plants. Despite that, it was home to just ten people. He occupied one entire floor of the ’scraper, of which only a small percentage was devoted to himself. The bulk of it contained every electrical good he had scavenged from the remains of the old world. Not the complex, specialised equipment — but the gadgets, like coffee machines, batteries, electric screwdrivers, televisions, and digital clocks.

I loved browsing through the relics, trying to imagine what they could possibly have been for. Few of them worked, but Davo could fix almost anything if left to tinker unhindered. I remember my absolute faith in his wizardry, tinged with only a small amount of envy. Even the air smelt better in there, as though the presence of so much of the past somehow cleansed it of the present.

Davo’s biggest problem — apart from those, like Kris, who felt better with the old technology forgotten — was power. The old solar panels — thoughtfully stored away by one of the founders, and requiring only cleaning and a technical mind to get them working again — were efficient but their output was limited. Furthermore, people often accused Davo of “stealing” more than his fair share of power, even though he had been the one to give it back to us in the first place.

He rarely spoke to me about the relics he was fiddling with, but I sometimes overheard him talking about these things with Max. Their secrecy bothered me for no other reason than that I felt left out, as children often do when barred from something adult.

As I mounted the steps to his level, I was greeted by an even greater state of disorganisation than usual. A couple of heavy racks had collapsed in the quake, spilling multicoloured wires and transistors like a tide of tiny bugs across the floor. I could hear Davo cursing somewhere in the depths of the workshop, but couldn’t see him. A strange sound filled the air: a whisper like, yet quite unlike, the hissing of cold rain or the crackling of fire.

“Hello?” I called, taking off my mask.

A ragged reply came from under a mound of old TV screens. “Shee-it! Is that you, Hogey? Give me a hand, would you?”

I ran to where he lay pinned beneath a cupboard. Taking a corner, I heaved until it lifted enough for him to wriggle free. I let go once he rolled away, and the crash reverberated for long seconds.

“You okay?” I asked, bending over him. He clutched his leg, which was turning a strange purple colour.

“Fucking thing!” I didn’t know whether he referred to his leg or the cupboard that had injured it. “Dislocated my bloody knee, I think. Hurts like buggery anyhow. Help me over to the tube.” I gripped him under one armpit and helped him limp across the room. A length of hose dangled from the ceiling, culminating in a small nozzle which Davo held to his lips.

“Wait,” he said, waving a hand at the bench. “Turn it off. Big red button — push it!” There was a machine on the workbench — a large metal box, its face adorned with knobs and dials and a blank screen in one corner. I did as he said and the hissing sound died away.

“What is it?” I asked, staring at it in wonder.

“Later.” He blew hard into the nozzle and I heard whistling from a higher floor echo down the stairwell. Davo hopped on one leg with the nozzle at his ear, anxious for a reply.

“Hello?” said a voice from the tube, faint and male.

“It’s Davo. Is Jerrie around?”

“Yeah. Somewhere.”

“I need speak to her.”

“Hang on, I’ll ask.” After a long pause, the voice returned. “Sorry, but she’s busy right now, repairing the garden.”

“Tell her it’s urgent.”

“It won’t make any difference.” The distant voice sounded amused. “She doesn’t want to talk to you, Davo.”

“Okay, thanks anyway.” Davo hung up the tube. “Shit. Stupid bitch.”

I looked at him, shocked. For me — going through puberty with Adelaide’s male-to-female ratio at more than seven-to-three and no-one at all near my age — any woman was to be regarded with near-reverence, especially one who was ostensibly single, such as Jerrie.

“Bloody cow.”

“Shall I go get her?” I asked, wondering if they’d argued.

“No.” Davo leaned some of his weight on his leg, and winced. “I really don’t think I’ve done anything too serious. If you want, though, you could run up and get some cabbage leaves and a bandage.”

“Okay.” Cabbage leaves were good for muscle injuries.

“And if you do happen to see Jerrie, tell her I’d like to talk to her later. Just talk, if she asks.”

I headed for the stairwell. Rapidly winded by the humidity and the mask, I was gasping by the time I reached the rooftop. I needed permission before taking the leaves and sought Jerrie herself rather than anyone else. She was tending one of the gardens, her sun-browned and exercised figure distinctive among the others.

I stammered a hesitant greeting as she stood upon catching sight of me. I explained why I needed the leaves, and that Davo wanted to see her later. She frowned at “just talk,” but I didn’t pry into their affairs.

“He’s not badly hurt, is he?” she asked.

“Not really,” I said. “He reckons he’ll be okay.”

She leaned close to whisper in my ear. “Is the radio working?”

I frowned. “The what?”

“Never mind.” She backed away. “Tell him I’ll be down later.”

I nodded and headed back downstairs, clutching the leaves and bandage she had given me.

Davo had sat on the floor but was otherwise where I had left him. Together we bound his leg and manoeuvred him into the hammock. Only then did I ask: “Davo, what’s a radio?”

He stared at me blankly for a moment, until he realised. “Of course! You wouldn’t remember — you’re too young! Christ.” He reached for my arm. “Help me back up and I’ll show you.”

He hobbled painfully over to the workbench and settled into a stool in front of the mysterious machine, mumbling about waves through the air and antennae and frequencies — more things I didn’t understand. Talking across distances using electricity, or something like it, sounded impossible to me; only his matter-of-factness convinced me I might be wrong.

“It’s an old CB-V, practically a collector’s item, but it works — that’s the important thing.” He twiddled with knobs and aligned metal rods. I watched him, fascinated.

“Okay. Listen.” He turned a knob and the unearthly hiss returned, more softly this time.

We both listened closely, I expecting voices, he something else entirely. Both of us were disappointed.

“Damn.” He rummaged around the workbench for a length of wire. “The quake must have fucked up the ionosphere or something.” He detached a metal rod and fixed one end of the wire to it. Handing it to me, he said: “Take this and hang it out the window. Try not to let anybody see.”

I did as he asked. The stench of decay was stronger in the dull sunlight, and I held my breath until I got the rod in position. He waved me back and I hurried to his side.

He fiddled with knobs for a few minutes, until, breathing a sigh of gratification, he leaned onto his stool and motioned for me to listen closely. The hiss grew louder and louder until I could hardly think.

“Hear it?” Davo shouted above the din, flapping his hand open and closed, open and closed, open and closed.

I watched the hand and listened. A sound rose out of the chaos, a note repeating in time with his gesture:

. . . pip-pip-pip-pip-pip . . .

I stared at Davo in confusion, and nodded my head. I could hear the sound all right, but had no idea what it meant. Davo smiled triumphantly and killed the noise.

The sudden silence was eerie, until Davo filled it: “It’s a beacon,” he said, his voice trembling.

“A what?”

He did his best to explain. “Imagine you’re on the top of your building and I’m on the top of mine. You want to talk to me, but it’s too far to shout. All you have is a mirror. How do you attract my attention?”

“I guess I’d use the mirror.”

“Of course — reflecting the sun until I see you. That’s what a beacon is: a repeated flash, but of sound not light, carried through the air by radio waves.”

“So . . .?” I was breathless at the thought gradually dawning.

“So somebody’s out there.”

“And they’re trying to get our attention?”

Davo’s face was very serious when he replied: “Maybe. I hope so. You see, the great advantage of having this old CB-V is that we can do more than receive. We could transmit, talk to them, find out who they are — if we wanted to.”

“Why wouldn’t you want to?”

“I — I’m not sure.”

“Have you tried?”

He looked guilty, but was saved by the baying of a horn. I was about to press him, but Davo cocked his head to listen, and put a finger over his mouth.

I listened too. The horn-player, having attracted the attention of everyone in the city, rattled out a short, staccato code almost too quick for me to follow, then wound down with one final blast. A few horns replied, echoing raucously among the towers.

Davo winced as he shifted his leg to a more comfortable position. “So this is it, the excuse they’ve been waiting for. They’ve finally called a Council.”

“They always do after a quake.”

He smiled wryly. “But not always just to find out if some poor bastard’s been killed.”

“I don’t understand.”

He pulled another face, and I suggested he should go back to bed. He could see the sense in that, despite himself, and, after switching off the radio, allowed me to manhandle him back to his hammock.

“Can I ask you for another favour?”

I nodded.

“I need to go to the Council meeting tonight,” he said. “Would you and Max could help me get there?”

“Sure. I’ll ask Max, anyway.”

“Thanks.” He leaned back into the hammock and regarded me through half closed eyelids. “You’d better go do some work, seeing you’ll miss the night because of this damned bureaucratic bullshit.”

I nodded, although reluctant to leave the wizard’s den of his workshop. Even mysteries adults refused to explain were preferable to tilling soil and killing insects.

“You’re a good kid,” he said, before I left. “Don’t tell anyone what I showed you.”

• • • •

The afternoon passed slowly. I helped Max prune our crop of tomatoes and carry some ripe vegetables into the depths of our building, where the relative coolness would keep them fresh. As I performed my chores, my attention kept straying beyond the confines of the rooftop garden. I wondered who might be out there, across the seemingly endless ocean, and if they really were talking to us.

The sea was deep to the west, almost navy blue at the horizon; eastwards it grew shallower and lighter in colour as it approached the islands. Waves played on the distant beaches, white fingernails appearing and disappearing as though vast, submerged hands were reaching for the surface. Birds were few and far between when a warm tide happened upon us, and only the odd dark speck disturbed the hazy tranquility of the eastern horizon that day.

As recently as four years earlier, I had gone with Max and a few others on an expedition to Barker, the nearest of the islands. We were collecting wood to light a bonfire on Council Tower — a scheme devised by a man named Cameron Dennis, who wanted to see if there were any other survivors nearby. The Council had forbidden the use of the city’s store of wood, so we had to go to the islands to collect fuel.

We took even more stringent precautions than normal, wrapping ourselves from head to foot in old plastic and leather to keep out the poison, and ensuring our masks were equipped with triple the normal thickness of filters. Even so, the terrible malignance of the soil seemed to eat at us as we hacked at the mutated trees. One of our number scratched himself on an axe, and died two weeks later of fever.

What I remember most clearly is the return to Adelaide. The three heavily laden boats were rowed by our strongest men — one of whom was Max — and they hurried through the thickening gloom, oars splashing and creaking with effort. I crouched at the foremost point of our boat, staring ahead at the vision of our home silhouetted against the setting sun.

So flat and still was the sea that the buildings appeared to rise out of the surface of a shining mirror. Their reflections stabbed deep into the water, as though Adelaide were a city of crystal anchored to the very heart of the earth. Occasionally, a beam of light flashed through one of the abandoned floors, and my spirits soared, uplifted by the sight.

Then the light changed. The skyscrapers darkened, became slender pillars of blackness like the petrified legs of an enormous creature sinking into the sea. I’d never seen a gravestone — our bodies were burned or dumped into the sea — but I knew what they were, and what they meant to me. The place I called home was made of tombs, archetypal symbols of the empty, final flesh. Within ten, maybe twenty years, we would be gone, except perhaps for me and a few of the younger ones. Not long after, the buildings themselves would succumb to the acids that ate at their foundations and topple into the ocean. Adelaide would disappear without trace.

The sun set, like the slamming of a door, and everything went dark.

When the expedition returned, we unloaded the wood, hauled it up Council Tower and heaped it on a concrete block. Disaster struck when we tried to light it. Chemicals had so permeated the wood that it refused to burn, no matter how hard we tried. Eventually it was thrown into the sea and the attempt to signal fellow survivors abandoned.

As the sun slowly crept toward the horizon on the day Great Fred chimed four times, I was reminded of that venture.

“Do you think anybody’s out there?” I asked Max as we finished our jobs for the day.

My foster looked at me carefully, his grey eyes both amused and saddened. “I don’t think so, son. Why?”

“Just curious, I guess.” The day faded in a wash of deep browns and reds, tending to black. “What ever happened to Cameron Dennis?” I asking, realising that I hadn’t seen him for a long time.

“He killed himself when the bonfire project failed.”

“Oh.” I was tempted to ask how, but could guess the answer. The preferred method of suicide was to leap from a building and be killed upon impact with the forbidding waters below.

We were silent as stars appeared one by one in the grey sky. The first to emerge were the Strange Stars: three brilliant points of light hanging over the northern horizon, always brightest at the end of the day. The Strange Stars had paths of their own, entirely separate from the circle of the heavens, and they’d always fascinated me. They represented change and mystery in my otherwise immutable world.

I watched them with renewed interest until Max handed me a sack of compost.

“Take this down to the storeroom,” he said, “then we’ll head off to the Council.”

I obediently put aside my thoughts and hurried down the stairwell. When I returned, Max had a bag full of spare produce ready to take with us.

We crossed the bridge to Davo’s building. My friend waited for us there, hopping nervously back and forth on a pair of makeshift crutches. Jerrie was not present, having already gone to Council Tower.

“She means well,” said Max. “Perhaps a little too well for the likes of you.”

“She’s brainwashed, you mean,” Davo laughed bitterly. “Tell it like it is, you old bastard.”

The three of us inched our way up the four flights of stairs to the bridge connecting Davo’s home to the next building. I took the crutches and the bag while Max hoisted Davo onto his back, where the technician clung like a giant child. Slowly, carefully, we inched our way across the bridge, I praying all the while that there would be no repeat of that day’s quake.

There wasn’t. A light breeze had sprung up, dispelling the fog rising from the water. The night was clear and silent. Gap-toothed buildings surrounded us like silhouettes of all the world’s dead cities, immense and hollow. Five bridges ahead, we could hear a whisper of voices from where the Council gathered.

• • • •

Councils were normally exciting for me. Being accustomed only to the company of Max, and occasionally our neighbours, I was unused to crowds, and the hundred citizens of Adelaide certainly felt like one when gathered together. Although most were old and tired, and some openly grieved at the sight of the Council, shrunken as it was from the old days, my eyes saw only a multitude of dazzling variety.

On this occasion, however, I felt a twinge of nervous discomfort. Perhaps it was nothing more than the fact that, with everyone still masked against the fumes of the poisoned sea, the Council resembled less the gathering of our community than a coven of mouthless wraiths.

Davo, Jerrie and I were among the dozen or so below twenty-five years of age scattered through the assembly. The rest were uniformly over forty, with Max, at fifty-nine, being the eldest. Kris Parker, chair of the infrequent meetings, was forty-seven and almost completely bald. His eyes were a startling blue. I’d always been a little afraid of him.

“Order!” he called, and the crowd slowly settled. His eyes smiled through his mask at the rings of citizens sitting on the floor around him. The meeting was held on the very top of Council Tower, lit by yellow lamplight, and there seemed to be more shadows than people clustered about the makeshift podium.

Kris removed his mask to speak to the group as a whole.

“First, welcome to you all, and thanks to everyone who brought gifts. The surplus will be distributed to those who need it after the meeting. Second, the roll indicates that three people are missing.”

Kris listed the names, and members of the crowd explained the absentees. One had not been able to come because of fever; another had died the previous week of a heart attack; the last had fallen from a garden during the quake.

There was a long silence as the crowd remembered the dead woman. I couldn’t remember a meeting that hadn’t started with a roll call of the deceased. We were all used to the fact of our dwindling numbers. If tears were shed, they were hidden by the masks we all wore.

Kris shuffled his notes. “The reason we’re here is to discuss the effects of the quake. Does anyone have any major damage to report?”

A woman with red hair put up her hand, and Kris invited her to speak. Her fresh-water tank had developed a leak, allowing the precious reservoir to trickle away. In times of a bad tide, this was a serious matter. The woman accepted that the best course of action was to relocate the people living in her building and to transfer her crops before they wilted. The Council voted, and agreed. The move would take place the next day, or sooner if convenient.

I tried to put myself in her position. She was leaving her home and the crops she had tended with back-breaking care since the Fall. I felt sorry for her, and was selfishly glad that it hadn’t happened to Max and me.

Somebody else reported that one of the older buildings had collapsed. Although uninhabited and therefore a relatively minor loss, it was disturbing nonetheless. All the skyscrapers had a slight lean, and it was only a matter of time before the stronger structures capitulated to the force of gravity.

Kris waited a few moments for further queries, but none were forthcoming. No one mentioned the ever-present threat of crop failure, which was unusual; I supposed that the earthquake had erased the more conventional concerns of Adelaide, for a while.

“Very well. Let’s move on to the next and final matter. I’ve had a request from someone who wishes to remain nameless for information on a matter I know nothing about. The last, in itself, is not unusual —” a smattering of laughter greeted the small joke “ — but the subject is one of some significance for our entire community. I therefore called this Council in order to discuss it.

“I’d like to call David Rothbaum to the podium to answer a few questions.”

I stared in surprise at Davo, who struggled to his feet and removed his mask.

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather stay here.” My friend indicated the splint and bandages on his leg and exaggerated slightly. “Dislocated, you see.”

Kris nodded. “My sympathies. By all means, remain where you are.”

“What would you like to know?”

Kris paused slightly before voicing the question. “The person I speak for would like to ask what you’ve been doing in that laboratory of yours. Is there anything you should tell us all about?”

“Let’s see.” Davo shuffled on his crutches. “I looked at the easy stuff first, so it’s only getting harder as time goes on. But there are two more panels working, if anybody needs power.” There was an immediate buzz: Everybody wanted more light, more heat. “And I’ve developed a primitive intercom system — a bit like telephone, but not as sophisticated. If we can find some unbroken wire I can link all the buildings together. That way we won’t have to shout across the gaps any more, or blow trumpets every time we have a Council meeting.”

Kris smiled widely, but the incisiveness in his eyes told me that he expected more. “And?”

“Well, there is something else I’ve been mucking around with. Not really a project, though — more a sort of hobby.”

“This is?”

Davo hesitated, and the Council awaited his reply.

“Uh, there was an old radio amongst all the junk, and I’ve been trying to make it work.”

Instantly the citizens of Adelaide stirred and whispered. There was a shout of protest, to which came answering cries of support.

Kris waved his arms for silence. When he had it, he continued the interrogation. “Why?”

“To see if there are any other survivors, of course.”

“Does the radio work?”

“No. It doesn’t.”

“Not yet, you mean?”

“I doubt even I’ll be able to fix the damn thing.”

“But you were attempting to do so?”

“Yes. Why not?”

One of the crowd shouted at Davo: “If they’re there, why haven’t they found us already?”

Davo sought to locate his interrogator, but was unable to. “Who would bother to look here?” He addressed the ring of faces around him as a whole. “We were just a small city in a small country. Why look for Adelaide when Sydney, New York, London, Tokyo, and Paris are gone? I know I wouldn’t waste my energy.”

“But if they were looking for survivors, surely they’d look everywhere?”

“And,” interjected another, “they’d be using infrared —”

“Maybe the shit in the atmosphere interferes with infrared, or the thermal signals are too weak against the background. I don’t know.”

“What about the OEG? What if we’re still at war?!”

“Christ.” Davo ran his fingers through his hair in frustration. “Anything could have happened. Ten years is a long time.”

There were a few more shouts, and some voices raised in anger — so many that Davo couldn’t respond to all of them.

“Where would they land?” someone called. “All the launch and landing facilities must be destroyed!”

“And they could still drop something on us!” This from a woman towards the back of the gathering, her eyes wide and frightened.

Kris again placated the gathering with his upraised palms, then turned back to Davo.

“I don’t think you’ve considered this matter nearly well enough, my boy. Experiments of this nature have potentially disastrous ramifications for the community as a whole. They need to be discussed before you will be allowed to continue.”

Leaning on the podium, Kris assumed the patient, preaching stance we all knew so well. His voice became less accusing, more mellow and charismatic.

“There are those,” he said, “of which I am one, who believe that the past is better left forgotten. We have survived here in peace since war destroyed our old world, and I am loath for this peace to be shattered simply to satisfy one young man’s curiosity regarding the ghosts of a life long dead.

“I have accepted the need for electric power, and might even be convinced that an intercom is necessary, but my sensibilities baulk at the possibility of recontact with any hypothetical outside world. I believe it is foolish to hope that there are others out there who survived the Fall. Even if they are there, they must be in much the same position as we.

“Similarly, lacking evidence to support the continued existence of the OEG, it seems pointless to wonder about the war. The OEG might have crumbled after the Fall, or left the Earth’s vicinity. Certainly, no one has seen them in over a decade, and I would be surprised if they’re still searching or even listening for survivors.

“My mind is unclear, but I see two options open to us. One: Allow David to continue with his experiments and attempt to contact any other survivors. Two: Ban all further research entirely, on the grounds that it is almost certainly pointless and potentially very dangerous.

“As is customary, we will take a vote.”

The gathering stirred, discussing the options, until Kris called for silence.

“Those for allowing David to continue with his experiment, please raise one hand.” I immediately voted in favour, as did Davo and a few others. I was dismayed by the poor turnout, and that Max did not vote.

When the counting finished, Kris called for the second vote. “Those against — that is, in favour of ceasing the experiment immediately.”

More hands went up this time and my hopes sank. A surprising number of young ones voted against Davo’s project — but at least Max again did not raise his hand.

When the tallies double-checked, Kris announced the results.

“For: twenty-seven. Against: thirty-nine. Abstentions: thirty-five. Not a clear majority either way, so we’ll need to discuss this further. Before we do, however: Max, I couldn’t help but note that you abstained from casting a vote. May I ask why?”

My foster rose to his feet, and heads turned to look at him. His face was shadowed and serious when he tugged away his mask.

“There is a third option we have not considered.”

“And this is?”

Max thought for a second, and I waited breathlessly for his suggestion. I knew that Kris would eventually turn the Council against Davo; Kris was too persuasive and the people too afraid of resurrecting old fears. But if Max — whom the people respected at least as much as they listened to Kris, if only because he was the oldest — spoke against Kris, Davo might be given the opportunity to continue.

Max, no doubt aware of his role, weighed his words carefully. “The third option is to allow David to continue until such time as the radio is working, then reconvene the Council to decide the next step. I’m sure he can be trusted not to attempt any communication until the Council advises him that it is our wish to do so.”

Kris looked askance at Davo, who nodded eagerly. “Sure. No problems.”

Kris looked unhappy. The suggestion was so reasonable that he had no choice but to call a second vote. The muttering of the crowd became less strident as human curiosity began to break through the initial shock.

And, sure enough, this time the result was conclusive: sixty-three in favour, less than twenty against, and the rest abstaining.

Kris scowled, but capitulated. “It is decided. I must warn you, David, that any deviation from this agreement will be severely punished.”

Davo grinned. “No shit, bwana — I mean, of course I’ll behave myself.”

“Then this meeting is closed. Thank you all for coming.” Kris turned away from the crowd and bent to whisper with the Senior Councillors.

“Almost too easy,” said Max at my side.

“What?”

He looked at me. “Nothing. Let’s go.”

We helped Davo through the crowd toward the nearest bridge. Despite his handicap, no one offered to help us get him home. Jerrie, however, came with us, and remained behind after we left Davo’s workshop.

Max and I checked our garden together, spraying a few of the sickly plants with clean water.

“You go to bed,” he said when we finished the chore, taking a seat on a rusted air conditioning vent and gazing out to sea. “I think I’ll stay up for a while.”

I studied him closely; his eyes were black pits, sunken in waxy flesh.

“You must be exhausted,” I said.

He nodded, and gripped my shoulder. “I am, yes, but I will not sleep. Not tonight.”

I nodded, even though I didn’t understand, and headed for the stairs. As I left, Max moved to a position facing Davo’s building. A single candle flame burned on my friend’s floor, and my foster’s bulky frame occluded it, like the closing of an eye.

• • • •

I fell instantly into a deep, dark sleep.

Less than an hour passed, however, before I awoke, scrabbling at my mask as though I were suffocating. I sat upright and listened to the sound of my own breath, wondering whether it had been the mask that had woken me or something else: a nagging sensation that something important, somewhere, was taking place.

I left my bed and padded upstairs to Max’s floor. He wasn’t there, asleep or awake. When I checked the gardens, he wasn’t there either. The plants rustled in the night breeze, and I shivered.

The night had chilled dramatically. Lifting my mask, I tested the air. It smelled of water — clean water from the melting south. The tide had turned.

I removed the mask and breathed deeply, thinking that this was what had woken me. But sleep would be hard to come by without knowing where Max had got to. Suicide never once crossed my mind, but the thought of being alone in our dying building, even for a night, made me nervous.

The Strange Stars hung like sentinels directly overhead as I ran down the stairs and across the bridge connecting our building to its neighbour. If my foster and friend weren’t up talking, then maybe Davo would know where Max had got to.

The workshop was still and silent; no-one broke the peace there, either by talking or playing with the radio, but I felt the need to investigate anyway. I tiptoed through the chamber, wary of any loose scraps of old technology that might have tripped me or made a noise, until I caught sight of Davo’s hammock.

Two people lay entwined there, coiled together with an intimacy I had never experienced. Enough light spilled through the window for me to identify Davo’s mop of hair and the silhouette of Jerrie’s face. I crept closer, and my heart pounded when I realised that a part of their juxtaposed anatomy I had not identified was in fact her naked breast, frozen by starlight.

Embarrassed and feeling guilty, I considered throwing a rug over them, if only to protect them from the chill air. Barely had I decided not to when a noise from behind me disturbed the silent tableau.

A callused hand grabbed me across the mouth and, before I could turn, dragged me kicking and wriggling into the stairwell.

“Be quiet!” hissed a voice into my ear. My frightened eyes rolled to catch a glimpse of my assailant, but he was shrouded in impenetrable darkness.

The man wrenched my head so I was forced to look back into Davo’s workshop.

I saw vague man-shapes moving to and fro through the shadows, like ghosts. I stopped struggling instantly.

There were five of them, large and unidentifiable. They seemed to be searching. One of them peered to study Davo and Jerrie, and I thought I heard a soft snigger, barely a worm of sound burrowing through the silence.

“No,” said one of the ghosts. “Don’t touch her.”

The one who had laughed backed away from the couple, and I felt relieved for both of them. Threat was implicit in the stealthy silence of the ghosts, and, even though I didn’t know what exactly had been avoided, I was grateful on Davo’s behalf for Jerrie’s presence. No one in Adelaide would allow harm to befall a woman while the sexes were split so unevenly.

“Here,” whispered another voice, and the ghosts moved to a side of the room I could not see. A moment later there came a tinkling noise as something large was moved, a grunt of effort, then a distant, startling splash.

Jerrie stirred, murmuring in her sleep, and instantly the ghosts retreated, vanishing into the night as though they had never been there at all.

I wanted to scream: What’s going on? But my captor held my mouth tightly closed until Jerrie returned to sleep and the night became still again. Only then did he relax his grip and allow me to see his face.

“It’s over,” Max whispered. “It’s over.”

I started to stammer a question, but he shushed me. He led me out of the workshop, across the void between buildings and back to our home. A faint butterfly-wing of aurora danced across the night sky, like an omen, as he explained what had happened.

“I was expecting something like this,” he said, his voice empty of emotion. “The last real challenge Kris Parker had was when we considered lighting the bonfires on Council Tower. I told you that the man who had suggested the plan committed suicide, but that, perhaps, is not the whole of the truth. Cameron wasn’t the sort to give up; he would have tried again, made other plans. Myself and a few others — we will always wonder whether he jumped from his garden, or whether he was thrown.”

I stared at him, shocked beyond words. Could such a thing really have happened?

“Maybe Jerrie’s presence made them think twice tonight,” he went on, “or I’m wrong about their motives. I don’t know. I’m just glad I didn’t have to fight them. There’s already been so much violence . . .”

In the glistening starlight, he put an arm around my shoulders and held me to him.

“It’s over,” he said again, and I wondered if he was trying to reassure me — although there was little reassurance to be found in his tone — or if he was describing the future, as he saw it.

I remembered my prophecy that morning:

Someone, or something, will die today . . .

I wondered if that thing might have been hope.

“We might as well get some sleep,” Letting me go, he stared out to sea one last time. The aurora briefly flickered in his eyes, then died.

“I’ll stay up for a while,” I said, watching with despair as the impenetrable blackness of the stairwell swallowed him.

Is it really worth it? I wondered. Is life so precious that we should scrabble for it every day, breaking our fingernails in the dirt and our hearts with sheer futility? Is it worth fighting death with an inhuman, soul-destroying effort just to survive one more day, and another, and another . . .

Now, given the opportunity, I would say to my younger self: Yes. Yes, it was worth it — for those who survived long enough.

But, that night, I lay back onto the cooling, age-scarred concrete and contemplated the sky with an aching emptiness where my heart had once been.

The Strange Stars drifted slowly southward, and I noted distantly that the three had become four: A new star had joined the others and, as I watched, it moved across the sky on a path of its own.

Back and forth, it moved.

Back and forth, as though searching.

Sean Williams

Sean Williams

Sean Williams is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of over forty award-winning novels, one hundred short stories, and the odd odd poem. He lives in Adelaide, South Australia. His latest book is Hollowgirl, the third in the Twinmaker series.