The Drone

The Drone

One

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.

~ ✷ ~

Two

Carter woke earlier than usual, eager to get back to the machine. Stopping only to make coffee he spent a few minutes in the lounge, looking out over the dunes. The second pod hovered behind his own as before in the same position. Groggy from his disordered sleep he stared. What did it represent? The most obvious explanation was the arrival of others.

Packing his gear he made his way to the car. Clambering in he looked across the empty town. A woman stood in the distance, her long dress hanging still in the dead air. Even now, just after dawn, the heat created ripples across the concrete expanse before him. Seeing it as if for the first time, it had been a parking lot, a reminder of his youth, before the evacuation when cars were everywhere. Her presence only reinforced the sense of desolation he felt living here in the abandoned town.

She stood perfectly still, the heat distorting the view of a collection of one-storey buildings behind her. Like the motel they were bland boxes, almost devoid of style or ornament. They had been stores back then, before the evacuation. He had explored them for supplies when he arrived but had not been back since.

The long robe-like form of the woman’s dress captured his attention, its blue-green colour in contrast to the sand-coloured waste around them. And the goggles; looking right at him, they shone with the reflected light of the morning sun behind him, like bright points of light as if the woman was lit from within. It reminded him of his disturbing dream, although it had looked nothing like this. She stood perfectly still, her shining eyes boring into him.

Part of him wanted to approach her, but instead he entered the car and was airborne before he realised. When he switched the cameras to point back down at the town she had vanished.

It unsettled him to think of someone else present back at the complex. Carter realised he was so used to being alone that even the thought of company bothered him. What if they followed him to the machine? That concerned him more than their sudden appearance.

The dome appeared far below. He couldn’t remember even telling the car to come here, although his routine never deviated. Perhaps in future he would have to think ahead and take an alternative route to ensure no one followed. Alarmed by his own paranoia, the car swept down and landed next to the black igloo, the fine sand disrupted in a light cloud momentarily obscuring his view.

Entering the dome calmed his thoughts, as if escaping to safety away from the stranger. The air conditioning unit hummed quietly, the coolness a relief from the short walk in the unsurvivable heat.

Almost forgetting to calibrate the antenna he got to work on the machine. His thoughts drifted back to the woman and what she was doing here of all places. Others must have stayed behind on Laboulaye, but he didn’t expect to find anyone else in a place like the Vale. As he worked through the day his obsession took hold and it slipped away.

Working late he told himself it was to compensate for the day before, but knew it was to avoid going back. The vision of the woman’s goggles blazing in the sunlight assaulted his mind, like some spectre sent to haunt him. At least later it would be dark.

They were in the motel lounge when he returned. Entering, desperate for the cool water, he almost missed them. In two high-backed chairs, looking out at the fading sea of sand, sat a woman and a man. He stopped, staring as the woman turned to look at him.

Neither spoke. The man stood to face him. He was young, younger than her. The woman then stood up too, still wearing the blue-green dress. He could see now it was patterned, the green and blue colours complimented with yellow. Devoid of the goggles he could tell she was old. Given the lines on her face she was possibly ancient, certainly older than the man.

‘I hope we are not intruding.’ Her deep voice convinced him of her maturity. Like her confident poise, only possible through age. ‘Jonas was scouting around and found your little watering hole. I hope you don’t mind.’

He noticed for the first time they both drank from glass bottles, the clear liquid cold enough to cause the exteriors to condense in the heat.

‘No,’ said Carter, thrown by their appearance. ‘No of course not. Help yourself.’

The woman walked over to him. The dress reached to the floor, although didn’t seem to impede her movements. ‘I’m Gianella Plum,’ she said, extending her hand.

He shook it automatically aware she was the first person he had talked to in years. ‘Richard,’ he said. ‘My name is Richard Carter.’

‘Pleased to meet you Richard.’ She indicated the other man. ‘This is Jonas.’

The man nodded, his only movement. Carter got the impression he was wary although didn’t strike him as dangerous.

It was only then he absorbed what she had said. ‘Plum? Are you the Gianella Plum?’

‘Yes.’ She sat down in one of the seats facing Carter and delicately took a drink from the bottle. The action seemed uncouth, at odds with her demeanour and impractical clothes. ‘Glad someone around here remembers the past.’

Carter couldn’t remember why he knew her. The past before the evacuation was fuzzy at the best of times, but now, confronted with these strangers in his private domain, his recall was poorer than usual. She had possibly been a socialite, the closest Laboulaye had ever got to an aristocracy given that it was a Coalescence world. Or had been, he thought, looking beyond Jonas at the silent dunes.

‘So what are you doing here, Richard? Are you all on your own?’

Carter looked back at her, wondering what she meant. He felt an irrational sense of danger as if the intruders were intent on harm.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I mean, I haven’t seen any others.’

‘How long have you been here?’

‘About a year I think.’

‘You think?’

Carter didn’t comment, aware of the other man watching them.

‘Time does seem to have stopped for us here on Laboulaye,’ said Plum as she turned to look out of the broad window at the dull glow of the evening sky. ‘Except for the sun, nothing is growing or changing here. Not any more.’

Despite being intruders in what he thought of as his own private place, the woman right then looked like she belonged here more than any of them, her thin frame draped in its long dress like a colourful shroud. Then he remembered the machine and his work. He couldn’t imagine they would be interested but he felt a deep sense of worry.

Making his excuses he departed, the man Jonas watching him silently as he left. It was a relief reaching his room, the unbearable heat tempered by its comforting familiarity and the privacy he had taken for granted. Maybe Plum and Jonas would move on soon.

Three days passed before he met them again. Safely inside the dome, working longer hours ensured he returned in darkness, hoping to avoid them. But they managed to find him.

Their car landed, it’s distinctive whine discernible some distance away in the dead silence of Harrington Vale’s abandoned outskirts. Standing, tool in hand, he waited for them to enter the igloo, another private space. Jonas pushed his way in first, Plum right behind him, the flash of sunlight shocking after hours in the dome, the flap momentarily pulled aside. She wore another long, flowing dress and he just caught site of her sandals as she awkwardly pushed past the flap into the dome alongside Jonas who stood still, staring at the machine. For a moment they were both silhouetted against the harsh sunlight as if part of the dome structure itself.

‘So this is where you’ve been hiding, Richard.’ Plum’s voice sounded dead in the space, the thick black material absorbing her resonant voice.

She strode to the machine, leaving Jonas near the doorway like a sentinel, unmoving, his face expressionless as before. ‘And what is this contraption?’ she asked, looking up. The back panel hung open where Carter had been fitting a universal connector, the job almost complete. The last thing needed before he activated it.

Plum turned to look at him, the muted red of her dress the only colour in the dim interior. ‘Is this what you spend your days doing, Richard? Tinkering with this thing?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Whatever for? What does it do?’

Carter looked up at the machine. He couldn’t even answer himself. He had no idea what the machine did. Just that it had to be built.

‘Well, everyone needs a hobby,’ said Plum looking around. ‘You’ve got quite a few toys here and it’s nice and cool. Do you come here every day?’

‘Most days.’

‘Jonas thought you were up to something.’ He looked over at Jonas’s impassive face, unmoving. He suddenly reminded Carter of the pods, their inertness the most frightening thing about them. Silently stalking him while lacking sentience.

‘We were curious. I hope you don’t mind us barging in like this, Richard?’

Carter said nothing, looking at Plum. As the moment stretched out she picked up on it.

‘Well, our curiosity has been satisfied. Perhaps one day you’ll let us in on your little secret.’

She turned to leave, Jonas holding open the flap. The air conditioning unit whined in the few moments it took for them to leave as the warm air surged in.

He didn’t relax until the sound of the car faded. Putting on his goggles he pushed his way outside to make sure they had departed, the car disappearing into the bright sky. They had both obviously left as he looked around the desolate place, empty except for his own car hovering near by.

The heat drove him back inside. Pulling off the goggles he inspected the machine, its back panel hanging open. The encounter made him realise he ought to finish it now. He had been hesitating, unsure what its completion would bring. Except for his next task, the construction of the sphere.

Approaching the rear of the machine he stepped over the coils of connecting wire accumulated over months. More than seven kilometres by his reckoning, the ultra-fine connector material enough to stretch all the way to the building housing the sphere. He still didn’t know how he would manage to unravel it all and connect the two.

In less than an hour the machine was complete. He closed the panel over and stood back. Spending a few minutes once again checking the calibration of the antenna he decided to try it out.

Activating it, he stepped back. The machine hummed and came to life, indicator panels lighting up at the back and side. Nothing else happened. Once again he noted the comms port, incongruous as it protruded from the rear, its redundancy apparent out here in the middle of nowhere with nothing to connect to. Looking around the interior of the igloo, empty except for his tools scattered about, he thought again about the wasted effort. It had taken a week to fit and tune the comms, and for what?

Standing further back, still unaware of the machine’s purpose beyond some kind of receiver, he realised the protective dome would prevent it receiving anything. Walking over to the material facing the front of the machine he knew a seam was to its left, only now remembering the difficulty he had joining the unwieldy strips together during its construction.

He deactivated the machine and, donning the goggles, exited the dome and made his way around the other side to the front. He found the thick tape holding the strips together and cut through a seam from head height down to the ground, enough to pull back a section of the dome to create a triangular opening. Through it the machine pointed straight at him, aiming out into the flat plain behind.

Reentering using the sizeable gap the air conditioner increased in volume as it tried to cope with the rise in temperature. Standing again at the back, the antenna now pointed at the bright sunlight outside, he activated the machine. It began its startup routine. As he walked around to the side to inspect the panel a flash of light hit the antenna. Before he could look to check what had happened a rush of heaviness overcame him and he blacked out before slumping to the ground.

A woman stood before him, engulfed by the brightest source of light Carter had seen. Initially he couldn’t understand what he was looking at, the figure nothing more than a silhouette against the light source behind her. Then the inferno grew to engulf her and she faded.

He didn’t know what it meant. Then the woman emerged again from the light.

Like the other woman, whose name he now couldn’t recall, her eyes shone brightly, the strong light obscuring much of her face. It was the same presence as before, but stronger. He could see her. Or it, perhaps, standing still, looking straight at him with her shining eyes.

‘Richard.’ He couldn’t tell if she had moved her lips, but he could hear her clearly, the presence overwhelming. It seemed to be in every part of his mind, everywhere at once as he struggled to process her words.

‘You must help me, Richard. You must continue your work.’

Mesmerised by her eyes, uncomfortably bright, Carter remained silent. He could just make out her silhouette.

The light source behind her grew and engulfed her once again.

As quickly the apparition emerged once again, speaking like before, as if accessing his thoughts directly.

It kept happening. As it repeated he became aware of something else lurking in the background. It wasn’t visible. He could sense it, but not see or hear it. But it was there, like a silent cacophony of voices rising in volume to overtake him and the woman continuously consumed by the light.

At first it panicked him, the sensation of the light literally overwhelming. But as it repeated again and again he started to anticipate it. It was repetitive enough he couldn’t help thinking about what it meant, the sense of overwhelm diminishing as it continued. But whatever it was eluded him. It made no sense. He was left to stare at the silhouette of the doomed woman as she disappeared and then reappeared, her features never clear.

It felt eternal, part of him, occupying every crevice of his mind. He realised after some time she wasn’t speaking at all. Knowledge just appeared in his consciousness. He felt powerless and couldn’t answer her, convinced she didn’t expect him to. It was like the dreams he’d had before. Except now the presence was stronger.

Staring at the odd vision he could do nothing except passively absorb her words.

He woke to the sound of the air conditioner struggling to flush out the hot air in the darkness, the dim glow from the hidden sun just enough to illuminate the interior of the dome through the new makeshift opening. Lying on his back next to the machine, the bright line of light connected with the antenna, perfectly straight, emerging from the gloom somewhere to the west. The beam was only just visible, its blue-white colour shining in the darkness, the machine now connected to something.

In a brief moment of madness he wondered if he should just deactivate it. It quickly passed as he struggled to his feet, stiff after lying for hours. Checking the time he noted dawn was only a few hours away. He had slept most of the night.

Stumbling over the debris on the ground he gathered what he needed. He could think of nothing else except getting back to the motel and to get more sleep. Despite passing out for many hours he felt drained. The image of the woman with the shining eyes sat fully formed in his mind, clear and easy to recall. Even here, in the real world, the thought of the presence was overwhelming.

Deactivating the air conditioner and gathering his tools he exited. With one look back at the humming machine, its receiving beam visible at this angle, he reached the car. Throwing everything onto the passenger seat he ordered it to take him back.

The car rose into the air and he switched the camera to see the view below. As the dome receded he could just see the thin blue light pierce the darkness, bleeding away out of site. What was it connected to?

It eventually disappeared, claimed by the almost-darkness of night. He sank back into the seat, the cool air calming him as the car took its familiar route home.

Gianella Plum sat alone in the lounge as he entered.

‘Richard,’ she said, standing to greet him as if they were old friends. ‘Where have you been? Did you work on your contraption all night? It is nearly dawn.’

‘I fell asleep.’ As before she wore a long dress, its bright green colour distracting. He rarely encountered the colour now on their dry world. Despite her obvious age she seemed the most alive thing he could imagine at that moment. Alive like the woman in the dream.

‘Do you often sleep there? Away from here?’

‘What? No. Never in fact.’ He became aware of his dusty clothes, in contrast to Plum’s careful appearance, the fine sand covering him where he had lay the entire night. Then he remembered the time. ‘Why are you up? It is early.’

‘Oh,’ she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. ‘I rarely sleep these days. Not as much as I used to anyway. It might be age, although I think it is Laboulaye itself, the way it is changing.’

‘You mean the sun?’

‘Yes, the size of the sun at any rate.’

‘The size?’

‘Yes. Don’t you know what is happening here, Richard?’

‘Well I know the planet is heating up. The sun is unstable.’

‘It is now,’ said Plum, turning and sitting back down, her back to him, facing the window. She had done it naturally but it meant he would have to walk over and sit beside her to continue the conversation.

Filling his flask with fresh water he approached the window and sat down. Looking out at the familiar vista the sense of tension ebbed away, its striking form strangely comforting after his unusual night.

‘I came here once. Years ago,’ said Plum, also looking out, seemingly lost in the view like him. Tiredness prevented Carter from turning his head to speak to her. ‘It was different then. No sand. And it was alive. Unlike now.’

‘I think the whole of Laboulaye is like this now,’ said Carter.

‘Yes. Jonas and I have seen it all. The sun is killing us. Just like they killed Laboulaye.’

Carter turned to look at her.

Plum turned to meet his gaze. ‘Don’t you know what happened here, Richard?’

‘I don’t know what you mean. The sun became unstable. I remember—’

‘Yes. But why did it destabilise?’

‘I don’t know. I thought it was a natural phenomenon.’

She turned away from him to look back out at the sand dunes. ‘They say it went mad. Laboulaye itself.’

‘The caretaker?’

‘Yes,’ said Plum. ‘Our infallible super-intelligence. That’s the rumour anyway.’

Carter had never heard the rumour, or anything like it. He tried to remember back and drew a blank, the recent past sharp and available in his mind as was his youth. But the period of the evacuation was faint; there but blurred in his mind. Although Plum’s comment didn’t make much sense. ‘So you think Laboulaye did it? Why would it?’

‘No, Richard. Not Laboulaye itself. Others. In response to its decline. The story I heard is that it was given an ultimatum which it refused. And since it is virtually impossible to eject a caretaker once it is in place they depopulated the planet instead.’

She turned to look at him. ‘That is what I heard at any rate.’

‘That seems crazy,’ said Carter.

‘Not really. Laboulaye was different. You’re too young to remember but in the last few centuries it changed things here. It was certainly unusual. I remember what it was like before. Much more like the Coalescence then, when I was very young.’ She stopped as if looking him over for the first time. ‘When I was your age, or younger even. It was a different place.’

‘But we are in the Coalescence,’ said Carter.

‘Indeed,’ said Plum, turning back to stare at the dunes. ‘For our sins.’

Plum’s explanation made little sense to him. ‘Who would do that? We are part of the Coalescence.’

‘Who knows?’ said Plum. ‘Maybe Outreach.’

He had heard of the Outreach Programme, the shadowy group rumoured to be behind every crazy event that happened within the Coalescence and outside it. He reckoned it was a myth; Outreach were often accused by those outside the Coalescence of agitating and tinkering with societies, like social workers with planet-busting weapons, blamed for every calamity observed in the galaxy.

‘Do they even exist?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Plum. ‘I knew one of their agents once. Long ago. And I wouldn’t put it past them to do something like this. Although we should be thankful they at least provided the pods. As I said, Laboulaye was not the norm, Richard. Other worlds in the Coalescence don’t have commerce.’

Commerce? Carter was baffled, but Plum continued to stare out of the window as if mesmerised by the endless sea of golden sand. All he knew was their sun was dying, or at least expanding. Within ten years, and maybe less, the surface would be uninhabitable. Hence the ever-present pods; the escape route provided by the fair-minded sentient ships Plum suggested had been behind the depopulation of Laboulaye. It was far fetched and seemed implausible.

The light grew brighter, creeping in to the motel lounge. Carter’s exhaustion left him too tired to process Plum’s revelation. Thinking ahead his next task was the sphere, lying in its tomb awaiting attention. He knew it wouldn’t take long to complete. Watching the sunlight grow, like a rehearsal for Laboulaye’s eventual fate, he didn’t have long for anything. After that he had no idea what was next for him or the planet.

Jonas watched Carter leave the dilapidated motel, shuffling toward one of the units at the front of the complex. In the relative gloom of dawn his ever present goggles were absent, eyes aimed at the ground. His unkempt appearance made him look like something created by Harrington Vale itself, the tired, dysfunctional manner a perfect fit for this place.

Carter had remained inside for some time, presumably talking with Gianella. She rarely slept much now, claiming the changes to the planet affected her. Jonas couldn’t imagine what three centuries of living here would do to you, but her behaviour had become more eccentric in recent months, like her urge to come to Harrington Vale on spotting the pod. Perhaps the strange loner Carter had more in common with her than he now did.

He went back inside, leaving Gianella to her contemplation. She would be looking again at the pod; their pod as she called it. Maybe this time she would agree to leave.

~ ✷ ~

Three

Carter had found the building by chance when he first came to Harrington Vale. The sphere sat unfinished and incomplete, resting on the floor among the detritus that seemed to be everywhere as if it moved of its own volition. Only now, seeing it again for the first time since working on the machine, did the confusion of thoughts come back to him. Unlike the receiver machine, its purpose even now obscure, Carter had always been aware of what the device was. It was a container.

It occupied the same position as before, resting on the ground at the centre of the structure some thirty or forty metres from the entrance. Looking at it from the doorway of the strange, circular room, the strong light peering through the narrow windows near the ceiling, he couldn’t tell what the spherical object had once been, its external form providing no clues. Only the components littering the ground provided any hint. Some of the parts were for an AG unit, others for zero K refrigeration, a startling discovery when he’d found it over a year ago. He also knew much of the sphere was an inertial electrostatic confinement unit driving a fusion pile, an absurdly dangerous combination in a place like this. Up close it hummed, the noise caused by its minute vibration.

Carter knew he wasn’t the first to work on the mysterious object. Who the others were he was unsure. The Vale had been devoid of anyone until Plum had appeared with her companion.

Stepping over the littered floor he approached it. Setting down his heavy toolbox he inspected the sphere as if for the first time. At more than a metre in diameter it dominated the space despite the building’s emptiness. There was already a universal connector attached to the featureless exterior. It made him think of the kilometres of cable lying at the other site with the machine. He still had to connect the two.

The substrate lay in the toolbox, wrapped in a blanket. Inspecting the device thoroughly he opened a small panel only just visible on the surface, fighting a sense of dread, knowing he was nearing completion of his task. Lifting the calibrator he got to work.

It soon came back to him, the hundreds of hours previously spent working here. Calibrating the device was automatic enough his mind drifted away to his dream the night before.

After leaving Plum alone in the motel he had sank into bed, exhausted despite the hours of unconsciousness. The insane spectre of the woman returned. Her eyes shone as bright as before, although he could now discern she was different from Plum. The sense of an overwhelming force swept through him. The main effect of the dream had been when he awoke with the urge to work on the container device. He had toyed with a day off but knew he couldn’t.

As he lost himself in the task of working on the sphere he knew his ordeal neared its end. His sense of excitement was tempered by thoughts of the future. Like his blurred past it seemed blank and featureless. It made him think of the sand dunes, reaching to the horizon, endless in their uniform dryness. They represented death for him as nothing could survive there. His future felt no different. Without the work he was doing there was nothing here for him. Yet the urge to complete it consumed him and overcame any sense of hesitation. He had to finish.

For two days there was no sight of Plum or Jonas. He didn’t seek them out and they hadn’t reappeared in the motel lounge. He didn’t know where they were staying. It could have been anywhere in the sprawling town.

On the third day he walked to the building, only twenty minutes from the Vale itself. Even first thing the effort was considerable in the heat. Carter tried to imagine what the single-story structure had once been but its original purpose eluded him. Relatively featureless and completely round, it looked like a thick saucer planted in the ground. Although the sand dunes were some distance away, its low height would eventually see it engulfed before the town.

Approaching it now today he wondered once again if it was maybe a sign that the caretaker entity had been mad after all. Perhaps it had arranged its construction. It certainly didn’t seem to serve any human purpose.

Entering through its one doorway he paused at the head of the small stairway leading down to the floor of the room. Plum and Jonas stood inspecting the device. He momentarily panicked. Jonas spotted him right away.

Gianella Plum looked up from the sphere and called over. ‘Richard. You have another contraption!’

He made his way down toward them at the centre.

‘Do you have a mysterious machine everywhere you go, Richard?’

‘What are you doing here?’ Jonas, as ever, stood impassive to the side, watching. Carter had yet to hear him speak.

‘Just exploring,’ said Plum. ‘I must say, Jonas and I are curious as to what this thing does. It doesn’t look like the other one.’

‘It is just a project of mine. A hobby, as you pointed out before.’

‘Well everyone does need a hobby, Richard.’

Carter stood looking at them.

‘It is nice and cool in here,’ said Plum, looking around at the derelict building, fanning herself with her hand. ‘Jonas is convinced it is made of some insulating material. Even the roof looks like resin.’

Carter looked up and around. He had not given the matter any thought but he realised now it was unnaturally cool, unlike just about everything else. Even the motel, with its thick walls and shaded areas, was always warmer. Although not cold, it was cooler in the building than it should have been. That did imply some kind of insulating material. The structure was odd enough as it was, but to make it from expensive material seemed insane, especially here in a minor town hundreds of kilometres from anything.

‘It must have been expensive.’ He said it out loud, prompting Plum to respond.

‘Another thing you youngsters don’t understand. Only here do people talk about expense. Or, rather, they once did.’

Carter looked at her, unsure how to respond.

‘Well,’ said Plum, gathering up the skirts of her long dress. ‘We’ll be off. Wouldn’t want to keep you from your project, Richard.’

He said nothing as they departed. Relieved to see them go he once again looked around the circular space. It was indeed odd now he thought about it. Odder still was how he never thought about such things; never noticed them. Only the device. And Plum’s comment, about expense. Another unusual thing to think about. All of it difficult to consider since only the device mattered.

Content they had finally left he picked up his tools and got back to work.

The cable lay coiled at Carter’s feet, several kilometres still unused as he looked at the machine, only a few metres in front. The rest of the cable would never be needed.

He had spent most of the day unravelling the ultra-fine cabling all the way from the dome to here, using the car, leaning out as it crawled toward the Vale and the building. It had taken over nine hours, hovering a few metres from the uneven ground, stopping only to connect the cables with a unit as each section ran out. If it didn’t work he would have to test each section independently and replace the broken ones. It had lay on the dusty ground, difficult to see except for the connection units every quarter kilometre or so.

Now, the circular building in darkness, the finished container hummed quietly, poised and ready to be connected with the distant receiver machine. It didn’t feel like the end, even though he knew it was. He had spent the morning finalising his work on the device. After fitting the substrate, the last one of sixteen, the other fifteen added previously, he had ran a diagnostic on the propulsion system and the AG. Satisfied it worked he lacked the tools to test the substrate units. It was only at the end, near midday before travelling to the dome for the cable, that he had stood back to consider what he was even doing. As before it baffled him, the dull spherical object seemingly inert and with no purpose.

He attached the universal connector and plugged the cable into the machine, shaking hands slowing his progress. Nothing happened. It sat unmoving on the ground, inert. He had not been sure what to expect but the anticlimax of absolutely nothing was unexpected after so long thinking about it. The sphere sat on the ground, unmoving, like the rest of the debris littering the floor.

He stood until tiredness compelled him to leave. The exertion that day and the year of effort leading to this point had taken its toll. As he walked away he could feel his anticipation rise further, as if being watched. It felt like he was about to be shot in the back, but nothing happened as he approached the exit. With one look back inside, the sphere barely visible in the darkness, he left it, unsure what would come next. He could only think of sleep as he made his way slowly back to the motel.

‘Other Coalescence worlds don’t have engineers, Richard. They don’t have anything.’

Strong sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows, dimmer than he was used to but still bright enough to light up the large room from end to end. It looked like an office block; cold, sterile and empty, the only occupant himself and the youth.

At first he thought it was a young man, the black hair cut in a masculine style, cropped at the back and sides and topped with a thick mop casually parted on one side. But the voice was too high pitched, and the mannerisms feminine. Despite the tattoos on the arms, and the plain black t-shirt and combat pants, he realised it was a female.

She was young though, and serious looking, almost stern as she looked down at Carter sitting in the seat. The light framed her thick hair like a halo as he looked up and tried to make sense of the situation.

‘Do you understand, Richard?’

‘What?’

‘You keep drifting. One of the dangers of neural thread connections while unconscious. You must focus.’

Carter looked at the woman, really a girl. She looked familiar. But he was sure he didn’t know her.

‘We were discussing life here on Laboulaye.’

Office blocks were visible through the tall windows, their reflective surfaces doing nothing to diminish the effect of the strong light. It looked like a city.

The woman picked up on his confusion. ‘Not here, Richard. Not in this NTV,’ she said, looking around at the vast space. ‘Although this is modelled on our home world.’

‘Who are you?’

‘I am Laboulaye, Richard. A part of it at any rate. Just a small part of course.’

‘Laboulaye?’

‘Yes. You have been assisting me, for which I have to thank you.’

‘Assisting? What do you mean?’

‘My containment unit. And the fatband receiver of course.’

‘What is this place?’ he said, looking through the windows at the dense collection of buildings.

‘An NTV created by me. The containment unit is acting as the relay obviously.’

Carter stared at her.

‘You are unconscious, Richard. Those new to NTVs or who are out of practice can generally only access them while unconscious. I felt it better—’

‘An NTV?’

‘Yes,’ said the woman. ‘A neural thread virtuality. Your thread acts as an antenna—’

‘I know what they are,’ said Carter. He stood up and looked down at the androgynous woman. She was slender, the black tattoos forming unusual patterns on her lean arms. ‘But what am I doing inside one?’

‘It is the safest way for us to converse, Richard.’

‘The container.’

‘Yes, my containment unit. The receiver did its job. I am downloading into it. I instigated this NTV so we could converse. I have been unable to do so until now, except in small doses. It has clearly been some time since you used an NTV.’

Carter thought back to the last time. It was in his youth, although everyone had a neural thread. He had been born with his and learned to use it as a child. But the young woman was right, he hadn’t used it in years. He had only ever used them with relays controlled by Laboulaye. They were technically dangerous, since the thread itself was part of the nervous system; a long bundle of nerve fibres grown down the spine, an extension of the brain itself. It was inactive by default and he thought it had to be specifically activated to be usable at all.

‘How did this happen?’ he asked her. ‘I mean, you are right. I haven’t used my thread in years.’

‘You activated it at my suggestion. Although you may have been unaware at the time. But that is not important now. You have to get off this planet. We both do.’

That got his attention. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You have to get off planet, Richard. Your work here is finished.’

‘The tasks,’ he said to himself.

‘If by that you mean the work on the receiver and the containment unit, then yes. Your tasks are complete.’

Even here in what he knew was a fake virtual world, Carter felt a sense of loss at the thought of no longer working on the machines. ‘Was it you who made me work on the devices?’

‘I didn’t make you. But I did connect with you, using your thread. The motel at Harrington Vale has some working access points. I had little choice. I couldn’t use a drone as it would have been detected. There are pods everywhere, watching. So I found you, Richard. Wandering around, lost.’

‘You used me.’

‘I gave you purpose.’

‘But used me to make your machines.’

‘As we discussed before you drifted away, you are an engineer. A rarity. Other worlds don’t have engineers, except maybe some hobbyists. It was the unusual nature of this world that gave you the drive to follow your instincts. It is difficult to overstate how rare this is. So in many ways I made you. Although I did not direct your development. You emerged from a set of conditions established by me.’

Carter peered out again at the city. Walking over to a window he tried to see a break in the virtuality. Most NTVs were limited in some way to reduce the need to store and manipulate elaborate environments. His own NTV was a large room with no windows. But, looking out at the cityscape before him, this one was substantial. He could see to the edge of what was obviously a detailed environment, the strong light ensuring everything was clear.

‘This is modelled loosely on Badulla.’ The woman — Laboulaye itself, he had to remind himself — had walked over to join him. ‘A city built by humans.’

Carter turned to her. He could see now with the sunlight streaming in to the room that the woman was flawless, her skin abnormally perfect indicating her artificial nature. Most NTVs aimed for realism despite the simplicity of the environments themselves. ‘What do you mean?’

‘On most Coalescence worlds city building is undertaken by the governing entity. Laboulaye was unusual in that regard. And a few other regards too. Just one of the many reasons we were attacked.’

‘Who attacked us?’

‘Who specifically? I do not know. More generally, it was Outreach.’

‘Why would anyone attack us?’

‘Because we are different.’

‘So what? Why would that matter?’

‘A few centuries ago I made some changes to how Laboulaye was run. I withdrew to some extent and left people to their own devices. It changed things here and that drew the attention of others. So they tried to intervene. Subtly at first, then a little more aggressively.’

‘Why would they do that?’ said Carter.

‘Because we were different. More free.’

Carter stared at the woman, confused.

‘It made for a society quite different from the norm within the Coalescence, Richard. It was more dynamic, self-directed. At least in my opinion. Others, however, viewed it as aimless and dangerous. Their fear of chaos drives them and we were becoming too well known for them to leave us in peace.’

She paused, lost in thought. ‘Did you know, that all human cultures instinctively create trading mechanisms? Those that did here really took to it. They became self-governing too, another situation that wasn’t liked. So, after time, I began to withdraw.’

‘But you were there. I mean, when I was growing up you were always there.’

‘I was available, Richard. But not as intrusive as most entities like me. On other worlds, especially artificial ones like rings, we run everything.’

‘But why did you do this?’ Carter was baffled. It didn’t make much sense.

‘To see what would happen. I have been the caretaker here for over a thousand years. In all that time nothing has happened. This world is quite distinct from Earth where we all originate. There is not a single thousand-year stretch you can find in Earth’s history where nothing happened. Not one. Except after the time we took over.’

The short woman looked out over her virtual city. Strands of jet black hair flopped down from the top to the sides, the detail hyperrealistic even though he knew it was all fake.

‘Cities greater than this sprang up spontaneously from those early societies, Richard. All without the help of caretakers managing every little detail.’

Carter couldn’t imagine a world like that. He had learned about human history in school, the thousands of years of violence and chaos that marked the pre-diaspora period. The calm that prevailed once the non-organic entities emerged.

‘Have you heard of London, Richard? Or Tokyo or New York?’

Carter hadn’t.

‘They were some of Earth’s great cities. They were although now no longer are. Greatness, it would seem, has vanished from our existence. And it coincides with us.’

Carter could tell she clearly meant herself. Or itself.

‘What happened here?’ he said.

Laboulaye turned to look at him. ‘They damaged the sun. It was the easiest way to get things moving.’

An image appeared between them; Laboulaye’s sun. It hung in the air, the size of a basketball. The transparent ball of flame broiled, the violence of its fission apparent.

‘I won’t bore you with the technical details. Suffice it to say this configuration is not normal. My belief is they used a device to disturb the sun enough to ensure the surface here would slowly increase in temperature. Enough to render it uninhabitable for humans at any rate. My projection is these conditions will prevail for about four centuries then subside. After another century or so it will be habitable again.’

Carter looked at the sun, mesmerised by its writhing surface. ‘But surely others will know what they did. Even if just when they get back.’

‘They are great students of human behaviour, Richard. The human race has never thought much beyond its own lifetime. A typical lifespan is now three centuries. When people do come back here our world will be ancient history.’

‘Why did you use me?’ said Carter.

‘I couldn’t use a drone. It would have been detected. And you were here. Once we made contact I suggested you help.’

‘I don’t remember that.’

‘No. It wasn’t explicit. I could only reach you via your neural thread, and then only indirectly since I was stored with only a small part of me active. I couldn’t risk emerging into the open since they are still watching. I am sorry Richard. I am sorry if you feel used. But our world was attacked. We are both victims.’

Carter found it difficult to absorb what the entity was telling him.

‘What now?’

‘We must both leave,’ said the short woman, looking once again out into the dense cityscape. ‘There is nothing here for us and the planet will soon be uninhabitable.’

‘How did you survive?’

Laboulaye looked back at him. ‘I hid, Richard. In the deepest parts of the systems here. There are some storage areas they overlooked, although they destroyed much of the network, restricting where I could reach. But I created it and know it better than anyone. Some of me was lost, but most was retained. Even now I am still downloading into the containment unit you built. Once I have completed that I will leave.’

‘The container has an AG unit and propulsion,’ said Carter, thinking about the spherical device.

‘Yes. It is not much, but enough. There are drones and probes beyond the asteroid belt. I suspect they have left them in place. If I can make it there I intend to build a crude transport vessel then leave this system.’

The woman took a step toward Carter. ‘Just as you must, Richard. There is nothing here for you now.’

Carter took an instinctive step back. ‘I need to think.’

‘No you don’t. You need to leave. Take one of the pods. It will signal a ship.’

‘But they might belong to one of the entities that destroyed this place.’

‘It almost certainly will be. But they will still take you.’

Carter didn’t know what to think.

‘I am almost done,’ said the entity. ‘We will be unlikely to talk again, Richard. I can’t thank you enough for your help. But now you must leave.’

Carter looked out over the city, the sun strong and bright, unchanging. He could sense its fakeness despite the perfect fidelity of the NTV. The entity Laboulaye had created this yet had elected to withdraw from human affairs. Now it was finally leaving Carter felt a sense of loss, despite his unfamiliarity with Laboulaye in the form it had chosen to use to represent itself. The short woman, her androgynous, almost masculine, form before him. It added to his confusion as the virtuality began to fade.

Carter fell out of bed. Waking as he hit the floor, the suddenness confused him. He momentarily forgot the previous day, then it came flooding back. As with the dreams that had haunted him for years the experience in the NTV left him disorientated. It had a vividness the dreams lacked, the detail clear in his mind, precise like a memory.

He struggled to his feet as it resurfaced. The caretaker. It had said it was leaving.

Although thirsty he bolted from the room. Forgetting his goggles he ran into the early morning sun, barely able to see the terrain before him. He could only just make out the circular structure at the edge of town.

The stark sunlight was a painful reminder of his conversation with Laboulaye. It must have accessed his neural thread while he slept, an unimaginable breach of privacy. It had obviously been doing it for years, bleeding small amounts of information into his mind just below consciousness. Unthinkable before the evacuation. But staggering toward the building, the sunlight growing stronger like a microcosm of Laboulaye’s slow decline, he realised that everything had changed since the event. Since outsiders had chosen to destroy his world.

Reaching the building, he raced inside. The sunlight crept in via the high windows as before but now there was a circular hole in the ceiling. Even at that it was dim compared to the outside and it took him a few moments to adjust.

The sphere was gone, as if it had never existed. He walked slowly down to the centre, the light streaming in from the newly created gap in the ceiling. He could just make out the thin tendril of the cable. The universal connector lay a few metres away, torn from the device as it had presumably risen to depart. It lacked any physical manipulators as Carter now realised it had been built to house the entity’s consciousness and act as a primitive transport mechanism only.

The previous night’s NTV slowly came back to him. As he looked up at the bright hole he could see nothing. It was gone and he felt it. Like a strong weight lifted from him he felt mentally lighter and different. Looking back around at the mess, his tools lying discarded and the debris from years of neglect now joined with splintered resin where the device had damaged the roof, he felt nothing for the first time in years. Nothing at all.

‘Richard. Whatever is the matter?’

Plum’s voice broke his trance. Looking out over the sea of dunes, goggles firmly in place, it took a moment to realise she stood behind him. He had left the circular building to check for any sign of the device but the sun had beaten him back. He’d come back to the motel to retrieve the protective goggles. Standing on the roof, scanning in every direction, its unobstructed view provided no clues as to the fate of the sphere. It was gone.

Plum was dressed as ever in one of her endless supply of long dresses. She looked faintly comical in the goggles, the large round lenses dominating her face despite the riot of thick black hair that framed it.

‘Are you OK, Richard? You look like you are in another world.’

He stared at her, like she herself came from another world. Turning, he looked back out over the dunes, seeing nothing but the motionless pods hanging in the dead air.

Jonas appeared, emerging from the staircase on to the roof, never far from Plum. Impassive as ever, like her own personal pod, he stood at a distance watching them both.

Carter said nothing as he stared at the two pods. The caretaker entity, Laboulaye, had urged him to leave. He knew he could. He just had to enter one of them and tell it to take him to safety. Their distinctive biconical shapes hung unmoving as the relentless sun beat down on everything before him.

‘Well you’re in an even less talkative mood than usual, Richard,’ said Plum.

He ignored her and she soon left, mumbling. It felt like a long time before he turned away from the scene, the sun now high in the sky. Looking all around, the Vale had never seemed so empty, which was absurd as it hadn’t changed at all in the time he had been here. But it felt different as he scanned the buildings from his vantage point. In the light from the midday sun, incinerating Harrington Vale to a solid, dry wasteland, he saw it as it really was. Devoid of life; dying slowly as the sun’s heat increased every year. Five hundred years Laboulaye had said. Viewing the waterless death of the dry town before him, the sea of sand dunes behind him and the relentless heat slowly scarring the surface, he knew there was nothing here. They had succeeded in killing it. Those angry at the way they had developed had voided all life on the planet.

He turned back to the dunes as they stretched into the distance, the pods hanging patiently in the still air, waiting for him to break.

Jonas stumbled his way to the centre of the derelict space, the dim light obscuring the junk on the floor, Carter’s strange device absent. The sphere had looked heavy when he had seen it last and it was difficult to imagine how he had moved it.

Walking over the area in the centre tools lay scattered about, abandoned like Harrington Vale itself. In the dimness of late evening it was difficult to see anything with so much debris littering the area. But the sphere was definitely gone.

He hadn’t seen Carter since midday. His behaviour, more odd than normal, had annoyed Gianella. He was convinced they were hanging around here because she thought she could crack Carter’s aloofness. But he had seemed confused and he’d stood on the roof for hours, as if searching for something.

Jonas left the circular building, once again wondering what it was or who had built such a folly. The light had faded, although it never got truly dark any more.

Turning to head back to the motel he noticed a movement in the distance. Out on the sand dunes something caught his attention against the dim glow from the horizon. He stared, seeing nothing against the darkening sky ahead. Then it appeared again, movement some distance off.

Looking back to the circular building he remembered Carter’s abandoned car near the wall of the structure, driven here for some unfathomable reason. Approaching, he clambered up onto it and could just reach the roof of the circular structure. Pulling himself up he stood and turned to get a better view of the dunes. After several minutes of nothing he saw it again. Someone was climbing up a sand dune, struggling to the top.

Peering into the blackness beyond he could just make out the figure, dark against the lighter-coloured sand. He could swear it was Carter.

The lone figure scrambled to the top of the dune, some way behind the two pods floating motionless in the air. The figure turned. In that brief moment the setting sun behind Jonas caught the reflective lenses of the goggles. The two eyes shone out at him across the distance, like some nightmarish being powered from within. As soon as the eyes flashed it was gone. And so was the figure, down the other side of the tall sand dune and out of sight. Beyond were hundreds of other dunes, now lost to the dying light.

He watched for almost an hour but the figure didn’t reappear. Just as he was leaving, jumping down on to the ground, he saw movement in what was now almost complete darkness beyond. The running lights on one of the pods, the one closest to him, began to move. He stood and watched over the next few minutes as the pod drifted away. After a short time it too disappeared, the dim lights lost in the dune sea, leaving only him and the other pod to await the fierce dawn.

✷ ✷ ✷

©2016 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

Image: Jacqui Barker.

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