Alone, Richard Carter looked out over the dry waste beyond Harrington Vale, the uneven ridges of sand reaching into the distance, ever threatening to creep closer and engulf them in a waterless embrace. Like a microcosm of the planet itself the town drifted toward its inevitable end. Soon the dunes would cover it all. But not yet.
The dawn sky glowed, stained orange by the sun as it emerged over the horizon. Only the distant pod hanging in the morning air escaped its influence, the light-repellent surface barely affected as it hovered, waiting for him to break.
Dark protective goggles hanging at his neck, Carter stood drinking the last of the coffee. He’d have to get more. That meant a trip away from the Vale. An unsettling thought, although one he’d have to consider. But later, toward dusk at least, when the sun had done its worst.
With a last look at the sea of sand before him he finished the coffee and made his way back down from the lounge of the motel. His own room faced away from the dunes. He had always wanted one that looked onto its endless vista like the lounge, but the sun was too fierce during the day. Even at sunset, his room shielded by the chaotic configuration of the two-story motel structure as it sprawled in odd directions, the sunlight still found its way in.
Gathering his pack, the tools already in the car, he took off to work once more on the machine.
The black dome baked in the bright morning sun, its deep colour muted by a dusting of light brown. Despite the lack of wind the powdery sand got everywhere, seemingly moving of its own accord, as if Laboulaye itself, sensing its doom, moved beneath him.
Carter caught sight of the pod in the distance, following him here kilometres beyond the edge of the town. Despite its matt black hull it was almost lost in the glare, the distinctive form hazy against the blue-white of the sky. He rarely witnessed it move, and by now it knew his routine. The same one he’d enjoyed for a year or more. He didn’t know how long and was disinclined to measure. All that mattered was the machine.
Wrestling with the makeshift flap he entered the dome. The thick material of the tent-like structure, found by chance in a school, was the most opaque substance he’d managed to find. It shielded him from the worst of the brightness during the day, enabling him to work here away from the safety of the buildings. It had taken a month to build the frame on which to drape the material. Even now he was pleased at how dome-shaped it had turned out, a black igloo on its dead tundra.
It was always a shock entering the structure, its relative darkness matched by a coolness provided by the portable air conditioner. Another lucky find. He had only ever found one and used it here rather than the room.
The machine loomed above him as his eyes adjusted. Its wide dish, a hobbled-together version of a receiver parabola, was dwarfed by its bulky midsection, manufactured from multiple sources. It stood in its horizontal position, hulking behind the delicate construction of the dish. Resting on a sturdy support, fixed to the bare ground by a concrete block, the machine looked like some giant’s raygun, forever pointing west, anchored to the spot. The exact spot, thought Carter. At least as much as he could be sure. He’d stumbled across its carcass when exploring and built the dome around it. When was it? It must have been a year at least.
It had taken that long to find the parts. Some had been easy, literally lying around the Vale. Others had required long journeys. The urge to find what he needed drove him and, like the dome material and the air conditioner, he had got lucky.
The device neared completion. It had taken longer than expected, especially sourcing the parts. The assembly had eventually come to him after months of frustrated tinkering, unable to explain even to himself why he was doing it. Looking now at its ungainly form, knowing it was a receiver of some description, he found it inexplicable he would spend his days on this activity.
Now another urge occupied his thoughts, growing in strength. To finish the sphere. He had abandoned it to tackle the machine, but it still lay in its empty tomb, waiting. He rarely gave it much thought now and he’d long ago collected most of what he needed to complete its construction. But as the machine’s work drew to a close he’d have to go back to it, almost dreading the thought, its spherical form clear in his mind despite confusion as to its meaning. Driven by some impulse the urge grew stronger each day.
The compulsion bothered him. At times he lost himself completely in the work, like a waking dream. But he also dreamt at night too. Over time he had come to link the two, as if his real dreams were instructions on how to spend the next day.
Setting down the small tool box he selected the laser and once again measured the antenna’s distance. Aware of the madness of doing this every day, it had become a ritual, like his entire life. Going through the motions like an automaton. Maybe that’s what living on an empty, dying planet like Laboulaye did to you. To survive you engaged automatic pilot.
Lifting the tool he got to work.
Carter stood in the motel lounge looking out over the dunes, the sun somewhere behind him and falling toward the horizon, still bright enough to illuminate the evening sky. The pod hung motionless, its silhouette visible against the burnt orange of dusk, perfectly still and sinister despite its silent job as his saviour.
This was his favourite time of the day. He could look at his world without the aid of goggles, almost seeing it as it once was, before the evacuation. Only the pod ruined the scene.
He had once approached it, not long after first coming to the Vale. Walking out across the dunes had taken hours, the vessel further away than it seemed. And bigger than he’d imagined even though he knew they could fit thirty or more inside.
As he drew close to the pod hovering above him it slowly descended. Eventually reaching its position, the biconical form less than a metre from the ground, its lower hatch opened, dull light spilling onto the sand. He had expected something more than the quiet presence of the odd vessel, small by Coalescence standards. And stupid too; lacking anything resembling sentience. It had just hovered, towering above him, cold and dark, as he too stood still, not even sure why he’d come close.
When he walked away he half expected it to abduct him and force him to leave the dying surface. But it quietly rose back into the air. Within an hour, when he looked back, it had returned to its original position a few hundred metres up, hovering like the dull, stupid object it really was.
He knew he could do it again. If he entered it the pod would take him anywhere he wanted. Or at least call the nearest ship to pick him up. He could stay aboard indefinitely. He sometimes wondered if he should. On the hottest days he fantasised about slipping inside its no doubt perfectly cool interior, away from the heat of the sun. It would be pristine; not a trace of sand. But he never did. It wouldn’t let him back out.
Turning from the window he decided to search for more coffee the next day instead of working on the machine, the notion triggering a sense of guilt until remembering he needed parts for the sphere anyway. The city was only a few hours drive and he’d need to get substrate for the other device. The thought calmed him as he made his way to his room on the other side of the complex, the sunlight still flooding the area, long shadows stretching behind him a deep, threatening black.
A day away from the machine would do him good. He realised how uncommon a thought it was for him now. The idea that not working would be a relief. At first it had helped, a distraction from the slow, dry death around him. He’d thrown himself into it, the purpose it provided enough to keep his fragmented thoughts at bay. But as it neared completion his mind returned to the future and what it would bring. Although finishing the sphere would be complex, assuming he could find more substrate.
The room’s dishevelled mess made him think of himself. It had no mirrors. He’d removed them when he first moved in. Facing away from the rising sun, and shielded from the setting sun by the front portion of the motel complex, it was enticingly gloomy. A retreat from the harsh entropy always visible around him. The room felt like his part of the world, its unchanging interior a safety against the predictable decline of everything else.
Tomorrow he would take a break from the machine. The intention to scout for parts for the sphere held the pull of despair at bay a little, although he’d pay for it later. As he lay down on the bed, exhausted, he knew the dreams would try to dissuade him as they always did. But he needed the coffee.
Carter blew dust off the small globe sitting on the crowded table, its form instantly recognisable. The substrate had been easy to locate in the university’s engineering department on the first floor, the decaying campus building littered with equipment. The compact sphere, only ten centimetres in diameter, lay on a bench despite its nominal high value on this world before the end. Not that he could blame them for leaving it; they were heavy, the dense material making the object difficult to handle.
Hefting it into his bag he looked for anything else he could use. Light flooded in, the abandoned workspace only just bearable without goggles. There were six other substrate units. He toyed with taking more, in case there was a fault in his current find, but decided to leave them. One was enough to complete the job.
Spending ten minutes rooting around for tools he found nothing he could use. He had already amassed an arsenal of materials for everything he needed to do.
Carter decided to head home, eager to leave the deserted city. Exiting the building, one of the few made from local materials, he marvelled again at the contrast before him. The porous local stone, chosen in a fit of novelty years before, was not up to the task of preserving the three-storey structure as it visibly decayed. Amazingly plants crept up the side of the dilapidated building, indicating a water source somewhere beneath. Another factor that would hasten its demise.
Cooler than Harrington Vale the sun’s heat bore down on him, the goggles only just compensating for the intense glare. Still visible at the top of the structure the weather-beaten legend of the university held on, the paint cracked and flaking. The sense of abandonment was palpable, more depressing even than the empty town he lived in with its silent motels and discarded vehicles. At least there the lack of scale to some extent limited the sense of decay. There wasn’t much of it to see.
He couldn’t see the pod, its familiar presence obscured by the buildings around him as he entered the safety of the car, but it would be there, hovering, waiting for him. Sometimes, on trips like this, he wondered if there was more than one as it just silently appeared. But since they could travel long distances in space it probably rose high until it could ascertain where he had stopped and then swooped down near by.
In cities he preferred to keep low to the ground, the tall structures sweeping past above him as he manoeuvred the car through the streets. It was such a departure from his existence in the Vale he couldn’t resist cruising through at a relatively slow speed, the controls on manual.
The car hummed along, almost silent, the sound of the overworked environmental systems filling the interior. The pod eventually appeared between buildings near the edge of the city. Even here, tens of kilometres from the former coastline, the dunes silently approached the giant conurbation.
The buildings here reached high above him, the architectural forms chaotic, almost organic, a sign of their human origin. It was impossible to say if the row upon row of towering structures had been commercial buildings or private dwellings, their multitude of forms masking their purpose. Most of the older cities on Laboulaye were more uniform in design, a consequence of the caretaker designing them. But Badulla had been entirely designed and built by humans over the past few centuries. Thanks to the indestructible material they used for construction it looked almost new, the only sign of decay the detritus littering the streets, a remnant of the evacuation years before. Nothing remained to clear it up and it looked abandoned; absolutely empty.
Spotting a cafe he stopped the car, enjoying the feeling of being able to park anywhere. When he’d been younger all the cars were automated and they parked on the roofs, none of them near the ground. But as he exited the vehicle, the heat hitting him like a hammer, it still felt like freedom, abandoning a car wherever you liked.
The coffee shop wasn’t locked. Nothing ever was as the city had controlled security and its death ensured each door would open to him. Dust coated every surface of the gloomy interior, the only indication it wasn’t in use. He knew from long experience they’d have coffee in medium-sized bins, sealed in containers designed to last for centuries.
He soon found them in the back. Dozens neatly stacked, waiting for customers who would now never come. Lifting two he took them back to the car. After several trips he managed to fit eight into the vehicle, the silver cylinders packed in beside him as it took off again.
This time he just told it to take him back to the Vale. The car gently drifted up above the city, rising high as it picked up speed, the windshield filters growing stronger as it climbed. More of the city came in to view in the feeds, sprawling in every direction despite its relative newness. They had said the caretaker was unusual, and some had pointed to Badulla as an illustration. A Coalescence mind letting citizens design cities, said to be uncommon anywhere else. Although Carter was unconvinced. The Coalescence was vast, encompassing the full range of human expression.
As the city dropped away, replaced by another sea of sand dunes, he thought of his restless night. Thankfully the dreams were not getting any stronger, even though they lingered like the memory of a wound. They came every night now, so much so he was becoming immune to their effect. Although he still felt guilty when he chose not to work on the machine on his occasional forays elsewhere.
The effect of the dreams was dampened by his poor recall of them; he never remembered detail, just feeling. And a sense of restlessness all day, like he hadn’t slept at all. The best antidote was work, to lose himself in the building of the machine with its intricacies and demands. Driving like this made him dwell on it. But the dreams drove him on. He knew they were behind his obsession with the machine and its enigmatic purpose, unknown even to him.
By the time he got back he’d only be fit for bed. That meant more dreams but without the mental exhaustion of the work on the machine. He sank back in to the chair, surrounded by the precious coffee, and tried to calculate how long it would last before he’d need more. He realised it was enough that he may have completed the sphere by then. Maybe he would never need more coffee.
Darkness shrouded the black rectilinear outline of the motel complex, its familiar form a welcome relief from the slow encroachment around him as the car descended. It sprawled in odd directions, its boxy units seemingly placed without thought, as if the work of some demented architect. Parking the car he left the heavy bag in the trunk as he made his way to the lounge with some of the coffee canisters.
The water dispenser gurgled as it filled the flask, its coolness a reminder of his precarious existence. It still worked although he had no idea why. Almost nothing else did. He had been tempted to dismantle it to find out, but worried his mania for the machine would drive him to reuse the parts against all common sense. So he’d disciplined himself to not give it much thought.
Walking over to the large window looking out over the dunes he noticed the familiar site of the pod silhouetted against the ever-present glow from the disintegrating sun, its light diffusing through the atmosphere. A second pod hovered near by, a little behind, its biconical form identical to his own. He nearly dropped the water. In all his time here he had never seen another pod, just the single one following him about.
What did it mean? Was someone else here? Had they left a pod for everyone who stayed behind? In the eight years he’d been alone he had given it little thought, the thought itself disturbing as he realised how rarely he considered anything but the machine. Surely others must have stayed too? He struggled to remember back to the evacuation. He knew it had taken several years; it was a big event, not sudden. Although the destabilisation of the sun had been relatively swift, observed over the space of only a few months before the decision was made. But the evacuation itself had taken years. A model of Coalescence efficiency as countless ships appeared to transport the stunned population of two billion wherever they wished to go.
The second pod hung there like the first, silent and unmoving, hovering above the dunes as they receded into darkness. It had similar running lights to his own, the night obscuring detail. Only its distinctive outline identified it.
Troubled, he made his way back to his room after staring at it for some time. He realised for the first time he had no way of locking the door. The thought had never occurred to him.
As he lay down on the bed, thinking about the second pod kept him awake longer than usual until tiredness asserted itself as he drifted off.
The town looked even more bleak in the dark, its silence adding to the sense of desolation with the sun sinking below the horizon. Jonas took one last look before retiring for the night. Why they had come here was beyond him, although Gianella had decided on the spur of the moment when she had spotted the pod in the distance. It had been some time since they had seen one other than their own. It meant someone had to be here, although he had seen no one despite the modest scale of the deserted town.
Looking out at the small collection of structures before him he noticed something new, a car parked near a set of buildings, rendered anonymous in the gloom. He’d explored the maze of structures earlier in the day but hadn’t ventured inside. Cars lay abandoned along with everything else, but he was sure this car hadn’t been there earlier when he had walked past the place.
Maybe he was imagining it. It was difficult to tell. The sun during the day disturbed him, its relentless glare bleaching everything into submission. Everything, that is, except Gianella. Her mania for travel, to always move, had brought them here, as if they could outrun the unforgiving brilliance of their dying star if only they never stopped. Yet Harrington Vale seemed as dead as all the other places. Jonas hoped they would soon move on.
The presence imposed itself, stronger than before. Carter imagined it as a point of light, the same white-yellow as the sun on Laboulaye, an uncomfortable sensation, blending the real sensation of the presence with the imagined vision. It pulsed in front of him, all else lost to darkness.
It never spoke but did manage to convey one thing every night — urgency. An urgency so strong it panicked him. He knew he couldn’t move fast enough to satisfy it, but it urged him on nonetheless.
The light source hung there in the darkness. As ever he could sense something just beyond his awareness, like the sand dunes, always there and seemingly everywhere. But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t anything tangible.
The compulsion was tangible, somehow related to the machine; a need to escape, despite the equal compulsion to stay in this place. Waves of contradictory feeling emanated from the point of light as it pulsed night after night.
The vision affected him more than normal since he’d not worked on the machine. He always paid for it and would work himself harder than before. All for the strange light source urging him on.
He tried to sense what lay beyond the light. It felt like the sea of dunes surrounding the Vale. But it wasn’t that. He sensed a vast nothing, more oppressive than anything Laboulaye itself could produce. It hemmed him in; just him and the light, hovering like an overlord.
~ ✷ ~
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©2016 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.
Image: Jacqui Barker.