3550 words, short story
Ashes Under Uricon
Lottie moved quickly over the fallen trees and the tangled vegetation, lifting her legs clear of the grasping undergrowth. She felt light today. Free. And filled with energy. She wanted to run and run until her limbs were burning.
It was the sunlight, she knew. Today the sky was an endless vault of blue and the sunlight hummed off the world. All morning, she had sat on a rock beside a pool of deep, still water, sunning herself, whilst big green dragonflies buzzed about her doing just the same. Ordinarily, she avoided deep water. It scared her and looking at it forced her mind to thoughts of sinking down into the dark, filling up inside with the blackness. But this morning the sun had danced on the surface of the pool, reflecting a kaleidoscope of light up into the trees, and the water did not trouble her. Fat fish rose up now and then from the green depths and the whole scene was too delightful for her to do anything but stop and rest and drink in all that light.
The sun always gave her new life, much needed after the mountains. This crossing had been long, longer than she remembered it being before, and rockfall had cut off many off the upper passes. A broken road had finally led her down, weeds and young trees growing up through its cracked tarmac. It had been quiet and deathly still up among the peaks, a world of cold stone. But here beneath the trees was the sound of crickets and cicadas, the noise of the undergrowth, the song of birds. And there was sunlight.
GPS told her that she was now somewhere in middle Europe, around the old border of Austria and Germany. Not that such things really mattered any more, but a compulsion to place herself in space kept her forever checking her location. She explained it to herself as a necessary precaution, to keep her from endlessly wandering back and forth through the same regions of the world. She never ceased to be amazed at her ability to lie to herself, to know that she was lying to herself, and to go on pretending to believe.
The forest had begun on the upper slopes of the mountains. From their peaks it seemed endless, a carpet of green running away from the feet of the Alps, unbroken but by the roll of the hills and by an occasional swathe of grassland. Europe was returning, day by day, to its natural state and a single forest, running from the silent, frosted pines of the north to the oaks and beeches that fringed the Mediterranean basin bristled from the continent.
She had been in the forest for three days. Her morning, sat beside the pool, had reminded her that she wanted to be beneath the sky, and her light steps now lifted her in search of breaks in the endless boughs of the trees. Occasionally she passed buildings, fringed round by the wood, or the rusted legacies of cars; some she peered into, looking for signs of inhabitation or use, but for the most part she kept on her path. By early evening, she had reached a place where the trees broke and she could look out again on the lands below.
The sun was orange and warm, the sky an empty dome. Many miles away a river, its surface exposed by the meadows that fringed it, caught the light and sent it spilling back out again, a slender band of copper in amongst the green. She thought that tomorrow she might angle her path towards it and then follow it down to the sea. It burned in the sunlight.
Another light winked suddenly from the vicinity of the copper river. Once . . . twice . . . something glittered on the plain.
Instinctively, she threw herself down into the long grass, half expecting the deceptively playful patter of bullet-impacts to ring out on the hill around her.
The anticipated barrage never came, and slowly she craned her head up above the grass, peering down towards the river again. The sun had moved enough whilst she lay that the water no longer glowed in the light. She moved her head about slowly, looking for a flash. Nothing came. But she had seen it.
She rubbed her fingers together nervously. Long ago, she would have gone instinctively towards any movement, any sign of life that she saw, hoping against hope that she might finally have found a living person. But such recklessness had taught her some hard lessons, lessons which she had been lucky to survive. Her hand strayed to her side, and the three deep marks in her skin that told of where the Hunter’s bullets had hit her in the ruins of Ankara. Her life had nearly ended that day.
Deep down, she knew that the chances that there were any large animals—let alone people—left on the planet were impossibly remote, so if she had indeed seen movement, then hope was a dangerous emotion. There were machines out there still stalking the wild for living prey: Hunters, Peace Keepers, Kinzhaly, DAR-5s, Buntfalken, Shenyang . . . the panoply of mankind’s old weapons, built to fight wars that extinction had long ago made irrelevant. Blind, deaf, and dumb automata, thoughtlessly plodding on with the tasks that had been given them, they would continue to scour the earth, looking for lives to end. They patrolled ancient battlegrounds, firing blindly at anything that moved, doing what they had been programmed to do with ceaseless vigilance. They would keep searching, keep shooting, till their magazines were emptied and their batteries ran dry. There had even been rumors long ago, when rumors were still possible, that factories had been built whose construction lines and supply chains were so automated that they would never stop working. The Pacific War might still be being fought by soldiers built long after there was anyone left to care about who won. Lottie did not care.
She clicked the little magnification lenses across her vision and peered down into the valley. Her eyes, now augmented to the distance, scanned again for any sign of movement. Nothing stirred in the heat. Birds chattered, insects muttered, and the air swam, but on the valley floor, all was still.
There was a building down there. She could just about make out the tilt of its roof, partially obscured by a fold in the land. She knew that she had seen something glint in the valley. Perhaps light had caught upon a window of that distant building. Perhaps it still had an occupant.
Hope, hope, hope . . .
She clicked the lenses away and fought a rising feeling of misery. Now that she had spotted it, she could not pass the house by. Maybe, just maybe, this would be it. Maybe there was someone down there she might finally talk to.
And maybe death was down there.
Slowly, bowed low beneath the brilliant sky, she rose from where she lay crouching on the edge of the trees and set off down the hillside. Beneath her, kilometers away, lay some small reminder that there had one been a world, been life, been laughter.
She felt impossibly naked beyond the protection of the forest. The slope of the hills, which looked so smooth from the trees at the crest, proved to be a treacherous scree of broken rock and thorn bushes hidden in amongst the yellow grass. Lottie tried, as best she might, to navigate the thorns without letting them rake her body. She found her aversion to their touch upsetting, a sad reminder of a world that no longer existed. Years of wandering in the wilderness had left her skin so scratched and scarred that it no longer mattered whether the thorns scraped her, but she still recoiled from them, so that it took her an age to make her way down through the valley. It seemed that some habits from her old life could never be unlearned. All the while, as she stepped carefully over and around the tangled thorns, she tried to keep her head up in order to look for signs of movement on the slopes.
The sun shone down and ran across her skin like electricity.
By the time she made her way down into the valley, evening was beginning to deepen. The yellow grass was a riot of sound as crickets chorused, and they leapt away from her as she pushed her way through it. It cracked and rustled beneath her feet. The crickets delighted in the sound, roaring up at the purpling sky. It was their world now. Insects ruled the earth, fish ruled the sea, and somewhere, masterless machines fought endlessly over a few tattered and mud-choked tracts of land.
As she drew closer to where the house lay, a sound began to reach her. Her hands played nervously with the straps of her bag. The house was still beyond her sight, hidden by the valley’s side and by the undergrowth, but the noise was unmistakable. The high pitched hum of a small engine.
She rounded the slope carefully, keeping low. She could make out the remnants of a path, what must once have been a fabulous, tree-lined drive. Now it was broken by roots and new growth. She followed it, keeping within the shadow of the trees. The whining of the engine grew more and more present beneath the canopy.
She could see ahead of her now that the trees suddenly gave way to an open space. Fear and excitement mingled within her. She gripped tightly onto the straps of her bag and made her way carefully to the treeline. Here, sticking up from the undergrowth like rotten old teeth were the rusted posts of a gate, flanked by the tangled walls of privet hedges that had grown wild and tall. Lottie crept towards the shadow of the nearest hedge and peered into the world beyond.
The garden was large, the grounds of what had once clearly been an impressive home. From the gate, it sank down, rising up again towards the house. The path followed these undulations in measured steps—first down, then up—the edges of which marked the limits of terraces cut into the lawns. At the lowest point of the garden a pond, spanned by a little bridge, glittered greenly, its surface speckled with lily pads and yellow flowers. A beautifully manicured cherry blossom reached its fingers over the pond, and a wisteria blooming in chalky blue spread likewise over the face of the house. The privet hedge, a wild and disordered explosion of foliage when viewed from the outside, was within cut into such clean lines that it looked like stone. The emerald green grass, striped and even, smiled warmly up at the sky and the outer world—broken, formless—leaned in over the hedge, looking on in bewilderment at this little island of order.
Staring at the garden, an impossible hope filled Lottie’s core. Might her search finally be over? With great trepidation, as if she were stepping out onto a sheet of ice that might give way and pitch her into cold, bottomless water, she reached out a long leg, and placed it down onto the lawn. The engine continued its whining from behind the house. The yawning windows looked down on her darkly.
She wanted to call out, but she did not dare to. If there was someone in this house, she wanted to find, not to be found. She weighed carefully in her mind whether to make her way around the back of the house towards the sound of the engine, or to first go inside. The dark windows watched her like eyes, and she felt naked in their gaze, so she made for the front door. The path that led up to it was made of gravel that sparkled in the sunlight. She walked on the neat grass, so as not to crunch on the stone. The distance seemed to stretch before her as she walked.
As she approached the house, she could see that the door was torn back on its hinges. Time had rotted it down to a dark and shapeless mass, half thrown back into the hall. Beyond, the house was dark and dim. Weeds grew up though the floorboards and the walls and ceiling sagged. A smell, at once damp and dry, rose from inside the house’s cold innards, and Lottie felt the excitement in her, which had been churning itself into fear, now replaced by a deep sorrow. She looked back out at the immaculate garden, suddenly understanding.
She stepped into the musty gloom within, peering into each room in turn. Everywhere, the house was a thick morass of age and decay. Here and there were signs that it had been used since the war. Scorched wallpaper told her that a fire had been made in the corner of one of the front rooms and several of the walls were covered with old, peeling graffiti. In the kitchen, there were a couple of empty tins of the meat paste that had been produced in the New Empire during its brief heyday. The rot and the silence told her that the last visitors had been gone for many, many years. The only sound to be heard was the ongoing whine from the garden.
After searching the ground floor, she made her way cautiously up the stairs, checking each to see if it would support her weight. They groaned and protested, but they held. Halfway up, she passed a broken mirror, fogged and dusty with time. Instinctively, she recoiled from her reflection. The mirror allowed her to pass without further comment.
On the landing, the rot was less pronounced and something of the carpet’s original color could still be made out. Dark stains were clearly visible and, when she caught sight of the jumbled remnants of a skeletal foot in the doorway of one of the rooms, it did not shock her. With a knowing apprehension, she made her way towards the bones, and peered into the room beyond.
The bodies within had been reduced to nothing more than an osseous jumble, but Lottie was well practiced at telling stories from bones. She took in the scene all too clearly. She had seen many like it. Skeletons, the world had many. Far too many.
Three bodies lay in the room. The largest one, the one whose foot had protruded into the hall, lay sprawled in the doorway, its skull shattered all down one side. The other two—one large, one small—were curled together in the room’s far corner. As Lottie drew closer, she could see that larger one was wrapped around the smaller. The little skeleton was that of a child, perhaps five or six years old when it had died. Something sharp had been driven between the sixth and seventh ribs, back when this body was still bound together by muscle and flesh. The floor was dark beneath it. Lottie felt a great sadness inside her, and imagined the head, with its gaping mouth, twisting and writhing in pain, the weight of the dead mother holding it in place. The child had watched its parents die.
It pulled inside her and she felt that something might break.
She wondered briefly whether it had been machines or people that had killed this little family. Not that it mattered. Not really. One way or another, the things that had done this were just obeying the computer inside them that told them what to do, whether that computer was a brain or a chip. It didn’t matter why. It still hurt her and filled her with fear and revulsion, either way. Why something happens only matters if you can change it. There was no changing this.
She reached out her hand, and then, hesitating for a moment, caressed the socket of the little child’s skull, touching the bone and imaging the face when it still had flesh and life and love. The skull was such a hideous, lifeless thing. She recoiled from it.
Unbidden, the image of Jared’s sweet face came to her mind. Jared had been so good to her. Only ten years old, when he died. She knew that she had been a toy for him, an amusement that he would one day outgrow. But she had loved him.
“Not just a toy,” he always said to her, stroking her gently.
Not just a toy, it was true. A teacher too. And a protector.
“I love you too, Lottie,” he would say. He said that a lot. But he never said “I love you.”
Certain beyond any doubt now that the house was empty, she made her way back downstairs and into the sunlight. Outside, the whine of the engine greeted her again, and she followed it around the base of the house, into the garden’s back reaches. Before long, she found it, pottering away in the sunshine, its solar skin glittering happily, its engine keeping up the cheerful whine. It was a small, bulky thing with a belly made of rotating blades that trimmed the grass and a spiny carapace of pinking shears, clippers, and little digging hands. There was no mind within it to speak of, just a map of its kingdom and a set of instructions as to how to go about maintaining it. It had been blindly following those instructions for decades, unaware that the world it was sculpting was now only a memory. She envied that little machine.
The sun was falling and long, dusty shafts began to pierce the house. Lottie busied herself with searching for anything useful that she could take with her when she left. She spread her own supplies out on the carpet of the sitting room and took stock of them. Several sets of tools, two small containers of lubricating fluid, some solder wire (but no iron) and several spare parts for her model, which she had found here, there, and everywhere. She contemplated, briefly, taking the gardening robot apart to see if it contained any parts that she might be able to use on herself. But then she imagined the garden growing over and consuming the house, and she knew she could not bear to do it. Instead, she took a cloth and some of her precious lubricating fluid and cleaned its solar skin. Its engine hummed happily.
“You’re welcome,” she said. There was no answer but the crickets.
Some of the computers in the house had what looked like decent processors, though they were old and crusted with muck. But Lottie couldn’t use those. She couldn’t operate on her own processor and so, unless she eventually found someone else, the span of her years would be determined by the life span of the hardware already installed in her head. She hoped, when degradation began, that it would come quickly. She lived in fear of having to wander the world for eons, half mad.
She spent the night in the house. She chose to take her rest in one of the lower rooms, away from the ancient corpses. She squeezed herself into a space between the floor and a collapsed cabinet, folding her hands over her tiny head. She never wandered at night, if it could be avoided. Solar energy was too valuable. She switched her system over into low power mode, the turmoil of her thoughts slipping away, and waited for the morning. Her mind ticked along in a quiet hum, her half-lidded vision watching the moonlight, refracted through the treetops, march slowly across the room, until it was replaced by the dawn.
As she gathered herself up in the rosy light of the morning, she could not help but go upstairs again, to see the little child. Its head was still hollow, its bones still grey. The gaping jaw continued, silently, to scream.
She knew she wanted—knew she needed—to find a living human being because that was how she had been made. That desire had been etched into her core before she had ever known life. She knew that the desire was a trick that had been built into her to make her a faithful companion. She knew it as certainly as she knew the atomic weight of an electron, or the distance from the earth to the sun, or the date that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated; a fact, devoid of tangible reality in her world. It didn’t matter what she knew. What mattered was what she felt.
She felt alone. She felt so terribly alone. That compelling need for companionship gnawed inside her, and she felt it would drive her mad.
Jared’s father had always said that she could not feel. Not really.
“When you hold your breath, Jared, and your body starts to cry out until all you can think is that you would give anything, anything to have air again, that’s what it’s like to feel. You know what it means, I know what it means, but Lottie doesn’t really understand. She says she can feel because she was made to say so. But she doesn’t really understand what it means.”
Lottie understood perfectly well. She had been starved of air for seventy six years.
The skull stared up at her, feeling nothing.