Abyss & Apex : Third Quarter 2009: Starlings

Starlings

by Michael J. DeLuca

 

The low battery warning shatters my concentration. A red symbol appears in the corner of the screen, accompanied by an urgent warning to plug in. Instinct tells me to ignore it, cling to the zen absence of transcription, hunch still closer to the screen, finish these last precious lines of Henniker’s annals while I have the chance. Instead I become aware of the heaps of cannibalized technology that surround me, covering the desk, spilling onto the floor. Batteries of every kind, torn from other computers, from cell phones, music players, handhelds, cameras, cars, remotes. I have bled them all of the last of their power.

Rain, infused with ashes, beats against the windowpanes, streaking them with dark. The storm humidity oppresses me; sweat rolls down my temples, collecting in my beard, making it itch; skin sticks to skin; my fingers gum on the keys. Moisture, seeping through the open windows, stains the carpet gray. I worry idiotically about the spent batteries. Should I move them away from the windows, protect them? Of course not. They’re meaningless now.

I am wasting the last moments of power that remain to us. Recording, for some infinitely distant posterity, the names of the people who’ve died since the pulse, who survived, and how. I shuffle through the heap of moisture-stained and curling papers. Town Hall minutes. Planting tallies. A marginal speculation on whether oranges or cotton might survive now, given the altered climate. The placard on the corner of the desk bears my name and appointment: Nicholas Acre, Town Clerk. These things used to seem important.

I sweep the whole mess to the floor, slap the computer screen closed, preserving its failing vitality at five percent. I retreat to the windows, knocking the chair out of my path with a clatter.

I stoop to peer out beneath the murky glass. The air conditioner obstructs my view. I would dislodge the worthless thing, let it plummet to the street like another chunk of airplane shrapnel falling out of the sky–except that some lost tropical bird, green-plumed, with mouths to feed, has built her nest inside it. Above the wreckage of our little town, in the distance, the faint glare of Manchester burning reflects from the clouds. Everyone else left alive in Henniker after the pulse, the riots, the exodus, the raids, the epidemic, is already outside, running around in the garden–what used to be the Town Common–laying barriers and digging runoff trenches, trying to ward off flood erosion, save the crops.

I should go out and tell them. Five percent. Maybe ten, twelve minutes of power. Take a vote on what to do with it. What last words the survivors of Henniker, New Hampshire would like to throw into the ether. Then seal the computer up in a time capsule and bury it, save ourselves the grief of having to look at it, think about what’s inside. I remind myself how hard I fought to convince them this was worthwhile, that someday the world would return to how it was–the power would come back–and our history would matter.

I retrieve the chair from where it fell. I pop open the screen. The computer awakes in an instant, ready to serve, unaware of its impending death, uncaring. I access the image archives, page through them, considering. I turn the screen contrast and brightness to full. I open an image, a photo I took on our honeymoon at Higgins Beach, on the Maine coast. Whole place is underwater now, but then… you can see it’s cold, she’s got goosebumps on her legs, up to her ankles in the surf, in a skirt and a big straw hat. My wife, Dolores. There’s not a single piece of technology in the picture, no watch, no cell phone in her hand, no boats, no planes. Idyllic. But of course, without the camera, without the computer, I never would have seen her, in that exact pose, from that precise moment, ever again.

I stare at her until the screen goes black and the hard drive spins down.
#

The rain smells earthy and faintly of lye. It slaps against the shoulders of my coat, shakes the leaves of the corn, runs in murky torrents through newly-dug trenches and pours into the Merrimack, overflowing its banks. The bronze statue of Daniel Webster raises an arm in judicial triumph. Surrounded by lashing green stalks, he appears to be drowning, too absorbed in his noble oration to be bothered with trying to swim.

Out of the few dozen families left in Henniker, only a handful have gathered, resting from their labors, soaking wet. I told them what had happened, reminded them what I wanted to do. Time capsule. Future generations. A few of them, maybe, grasp what it means. What we’ve lost. Julia Brankin, her face lined with cracks, thinking about her two sons dead from rabies. Her husband John, trying not to think about them. Me, I’m thinking of heaven. Not of God, but of the network of satellites above the earth, beyond our atmosphere. Servers, full of lost data: dead message boards, sprawling wikis, archives upon archives of images and video. Orbiting, untouchable, sure in their power, unaffected by earthly strife or climate change or economic collapse. I gaze up, searching for them, seeing nothing through the clouds. Ashy rain streaks my glasses, stinging my eyes.

I don’t know what I thought would happen–that sea levels would spontaneously fall, that people would quit trying to kill each other, put out the fires, and miraculously the grid would come back to life. I’ve been operating under a delusion. Better that than not at all.

I lean into the handle of the spade, the wood rough against my uncalloused palms, pushing the blade into the saturated earth. The dead computer sits on the ground, cold, silent, snug in an airtight plastic tub. I’m going to bury our memories at Webster’s feet. Deep.

A voice, accented with the cool vowels of the once-cold North, stops me: “Wait.” A stranger appears out of the rain, escorted by two of our guards. A tall, angular man, barefoot, mud caked in his toenails, cheekbones blurred by gray stubble, eyes unclouded by ashes or fear. Down at the end of the rain-pelted street, a beat-up aluminum canoe drags against the swollen river’s current, moored to a bridge piling. He stretches a long hand to the nearest of us. “Forgive my intrusion. I am Valery, a traveler.”

Now people are putting down their tools, coming out from the shelter of awnings and doorways to surround us. Not because of me–they haven’t guessed my selfishness, the still-lingering image of my wife’s goose-pimpled calves disappearing into the sea. It’s him; they want to shake his hand, to hear his news. A traveler, a frontiersman. One of those who, since the collapse, have disowned culture, wandering the ruined world as if it were new, stopping once in awhile to inspire false hope in those they meet, then moving on. A handful like him have come through Henniker since the collapse–a handful, at least, who wanted something more than to pillage what they could and raze the rest.

Valery addresses his admirers, but his gaze is on me and my shovel–on the computer at my feet. His lip curls. “You’ve heard of the reconstructionists, eh? Those who believe the comforts of our past worth regaining, who seek to salvage part of what destroyed us.” Yes. I understand him: he’ll accept our gifts of supplies and attention in exchange for what he knows, but that doesn’t require him to respect us. I want to tell him he need not waste his contempt. Reconstructionism has failed. He’s arrived just in time for the funeral. “I come from Quebec,” he says, “following the Saint-Laurent, the Chaudiére, the Pemigewasset. Now the Merrimack. Not long ago I spent a night in Franklin, north of here. There I met a colony of reconstructionists, prosperous, well-entrenched. I brought them warning of a raid, in exchange for provisions. They fought well.”

Whispers. The rain tapers, turning to mist. We’d heard there were survivors in Franklin, but it’s forty miles away. Forty miles of changed landscape, fraught with marauders, bodies, burning ruins, disease, invasive species. It might as well be a thousand miles. No wonder they’re all hanging on his word.

I plunge the shovel again into the dirt, deflect my resentment at the earth. “Get on with it,” I say. “I want to bury this.”

Murmurs from the others–I’ve shocked them. A week ago I might have cared about his news as much as they do. Right now, I care about forgetting.

The stranger narrows his eyes. “They claimed to have had contact with another outpost, somewhere downriver. Near here.”

The trickle of moisture down my neck isn’t what makes me shiver. “Contact,” I say. “What are you talking about?” Then I understand: hydroelectrics. The Franklin Falls Dam. He means they have power. I thought of water turbines, when the batteries started running out. Nobody knew how to build one.

Hollows open in the clouds, but the overcast holds firm; no sky shows through. With a steady power source, and a satellite dish whose calibration somehow survived the pulse… they’d have an access point to heaven. A chance to see the world as whole again, instead of from this single point behind scratched glasses.

I drop the shovel, rub rain from my eyes. “What do you mean, ‘somewhere downriver’? Who did they contact? Not us.”

But he knows that. He can see it. “No?” His accent underlines the insincerity of his surprise. “Perhaps further south along the river, then? The information I received was clear. It can’t be far, eh? I’ll head that way now.” An inclination of his brow. A twitch of his shoulder, indicating the canoe. Moisture collects in beads on the plastic casing of the dead computer at my feet. He–a traveler–inviting one of us to journey with him?

He is looking at me. Out of all the people here, me.

I shake my head. Not me–not with him. But everybody’s watching. They’re surprised, even jealous, but happy for me, expecting me to be happy, because this is what I want. Because this computer is everything I’ve done since the pulse. How has this man, a stranger, seen through me, when I still have their trust? I don’t care about planting tallies. I don’t care if these people grow food and learn to survive.

No, that’s not true. It just scares me how easily they adapt. They humor me, counting out beans, keeping journals for me to transcribe. Even the youngest, the ones practically born with phones glued to their heads, they don’t miss it, don’t care about getting it back. They only want Valery’s news for the chance not to feel so alone.

All I want is the other half of my brain back, the half that’s sealed up in this plastic tub. A blank spot in my cognition, like a severed limb, an absent spouse.

I tell them I’ll go pack. # The sky, mottled and sharp, slipping away past my feet from the bottom of an aluminum canoe. My shoulders ache, stinging with sunburn against the cool, damp metal. Rushes hiss by against the gunwales. In the blue cracks between the clouds, darker, swifter shapes shift and scatter: a flock of starlings, vast and bewildered, their migratory instincts broken, ruined by climate change or by the pulse. The earth is an overheated processor, spitting error messages across the sky, running through all the same tasks over and over even though the parameters have changed and none of it means anything. Yet somewhere above it all, the satellites spin, fueled by the sun.

Valery’s muscles steadily sweep away water left and right. Droplets flung from the end of his paddle fall across my chest. He prods me with the blade. “Enough rest.”

I lever myself up painfully onto the seat. The Merrimack surrounds us, its surface murky and slick, sweltering, blurred by heat distortion in the distance. Wreckage protrudes from the muddy banks, dead leaves caked against the rotting hulls of pleasure boats overgrown with creepers. Kudzu, Valery says. Invading from the South.

“Paddle,” he grunts at me. “Black flies catching up, eh?” I fumble for it, behind me in the bottom of the boat. My shoulders groan as the plastic blade breaks the water. Blisters throb along the insides of my thumbs. The flies swarm behind us, riding our draft: a cloud of tiny, airborne piranhas, waiting to devour us.

Hours, we’ve been doing this. I can’t keep track of time. Valery hasn’t had one break, only a pause once in a while to point out which floating logs are really logs and which are alligators. Escaped pets, breeding in backwater swamps. Or so he claims. He hasn’t spoken more than six words at once. Why did he want me along?

We pass under a bridge, a blissful moment of echoes and shade.

As we reemerge into the light, a glittering hulk looms in our path, like a crashed interplanetary escape pod: a silver minivan, the windshield shattered, half-submerged at a drunken angle. Inside I glimpse the dead screen of an entertainment console, then turn my head, not wanting to see the inevitable bodies. I paddle harder, digging in to get away, but the canoe is sluggish beneath me, dragging. In the stern of the boat, Valery’s paddle rests across his knees. He watches me, wearing the smirk that hasn’t left his face since I met him. He’s trying to provoke me. I clench my jaw and keep paddling.

We come up even with the wreck and start to pull away. A ribbon of iridescent fluid trails from the smashed-in front end. I concentrate on the ache in my muscles, the eddies spinning away from the end of my strokes.

Valery plunges his paddle in at right angles to the canoe. The prow veers sharply. I nearly drop my paddle trying to keep from falling over the side. “What the hell?” I say. “You’re the one who said to hurry up. Let’s go!”

Valery’s eyes are green and distant. He switches sides, starts back-paddling against me.

We drift, the canoe spinning, sliding gently backwards down the current. Sweat trickles down my chest. The minivan comes back into view, receding slowly.

I can make out three bodies, skeletal, two adult-sized in the front seat, caked with muck and flotsam, and another, smaller, slumped against the side window. Me, Dolores, and a kid we never got the chance to have. “You’ve made your point,” I say. The black flies have caught up; one of them rips a bite-sized chunk from the inside of my arm. I slap at it uselessly.

Valery gazes at the bodies, mute. A turtle, sunning itself on the dashboard, splashes off into the water.

“So this is your life, huh? Traveling the world, taking stock of the ruin?”

“Yours is better?” He stretches over the pile of gear in the middle of the boat, grabs the plastic tub with the computer inside. He holds it to the light, as though expecting the sun to shine through it and show him its flaws.

“Put that down.” I rise to a half-stand, reaching for it. The canoe rocks precariously.

Valery cocks his head at the minivan. “See that?” he asks. “That’s you and your people, eh? Reconstructionists. Hiding inside the bullet that killed them, wishing they could revive the gun.”

The current is picking up; the banks roll by faster. From behind me, further downriver, a white rumble like thunder. I crane my neck around: ahead of us, slick rocks bulge up out of the river; its smooth surface burrs into valleys and spikes. Rapids. I sit hastily, plunge in my paddle to try to slow us down.

“I travel,” Valery is saying, “to understand what’s changed.” He shakes the computer, rattling it in its case. “Meanwhile, you huddle in your cave, wearing this thing like a blindfold. Why? The wreckage, the corpses, the gators–these are real! How can you expect to survive here, to rebuild anything, unless you accept that?”

“Give it back,” I say.

Valery hurls the computer over the side into the water. It disappears briefly in a splash, but floats, buoyed up inside the plastic tub. The current pulls it away. I am suddenly sick to my stomach. Still he makes no move to pick up his paddle.

Yesterday I was ready to bury it, knowing I would never see her face again, or any of the other pieces of my life I’d stored inside. For some reason the loss of it, the loss of her, only hits now. What will life be like without it? Trees, hanging low over the water, full of strange-voiced birds. Predators, waiting hidden in the shallows. The smells of wet and rot.

I can’t let it happen.

I drop my paddle into the boat. I lift one foot onto the prow and step up. Valery shouts from behind me, his voice slurred with surprise. I dive into the Merrimack. The impact of the surface rips the glasses from my face.

The last time I swam was at Higgins Beach, our anniversary, seven months before the pulse, in freezing water, green and full of light. Undertow. The river water is sweltering hot for the first foot and a half, then cool, cloudy. Nothing visible beyond my flailing fingers. I brush bottom: slimy, viscous mud made ropy by weeds, like brushing up against some sleeping amphibian. I shudder and push off, propel myself to the surface.

My aching arms plow through foam. The plastic tub bobs ten yards ahead, bouncing from one rock to another. Water fills my mouth and nostrils, reeking of pollen and death. Valery and the canoe have disappeared. The current drags me into the rapids, batters my body against submerged stones that rip away skin from my elbows and knees. I try to push off them, gain momentum, but the tub outpaces me, pulling away. I can’t swim fast enough.

The roar fills my ears. A falls looms ahead of me. I have no control. I spill over the edge, plunge underwater. My shoulder drives hard into sand, pain shooting down my arm. I whirl, head over heels. A boulder lurches up out of the murk and slams into my skull. Darkness streaks across my vision in the forking shapes of electricity. Sunlit silt-clouds spin in dizzy patterns. My cognition struggles to reset. I’ve lost it–my memory, my mind. I am plummeting in freefall like a broken starling, flapping at random, propelling myself without purpose or will because no direction I go in, no expenditure of strength or breath, brings any change.

Out of this nothingness, a hand plunges towards me. My perception reorients around it–the only stationary object in a formless, whirling void. The hand grips my wrist; I am heaved to the surface. Valery stoops over me, his bare feet straddling two boulders, sun gleaming behind him. Downstream, past the rapids, the tub floats motionless, caught in the branches of a fallen tree.

#

As evening falls I sit wrapped in a blanket, coughing, nose running, before a fire Valery started not with matches or butane but a wooden drill powered by hand. I still can’t quite believe I saw it happen, even with nothing between my eyes and the blossoming fire.

I’m used to frames. Everything artificially sharp, right down to the unsubtle shift in pixel that separates one form from the next. Now the transition from the warm, bright side of my existence to the shadows is seamless, though blurred: the pine branches shifting to meet the tongues of flame, the stars blurring in and out of vision with the smoke, unlimited by edge of lens or monitor or screen. My head throbs, and my throat is swollen, but I’m here. With the box containing my dead memories at my side.

Valery appears, preceded by screams from the woods. Above us, in the tree, a face, wizened and white. It screeches once more, then disappears. He drops a spitted piece of meat over the fire and crouches beside it, his beard glowing orange in the firelight. “Capuchin monkeys,” he says. I believe him. He pulls the kettle off the coals, pours me a cup of some herbal infusion. “Drink quickly.” Maybe it’s my lack of glasses, but the curl of his lip has softened.

“You didn’t need supplies,” I accuse, between bitter sips. “You didn’t need to stop in Henniker. You could have kept right on going. My computer–you didn’t have to throw it in the river. You didn’t have to save my life.”

Valery produces a pipe, a plastic bag stuffed with some other dried herb. “You want to know why I took you along.”

I nod. Valery shrugs. “I’m a loner, a traveler, oui. But I’m not a gator yet. Sometimes I need company. Even an idiot like you, eh?”

The Merrimack runs black in the starlight, but the scent of silky, sunbaked mud still lingers in the air. I’d forgotten about the gators–those innocuous logs, floating on the river. Former pets. “Gators… Jesus. I could have–“

Valery laughs. He settles back against a tree. He lights his pipe with a smoldering twig, breathes pungent smoke, and studies the stars. “They prefer still waters. But yes. You took great risk. You are even worse a reconstructionist than I expected.” He’s not sorry. And I don’t really care. I wonder if he ever even thinks about the past. Who was he, before the collapse? Does it matter? This is his life now: the night sky and the fire. The meat of a dead monkey sizzling over flame.

He’s a liar. He doesn’t need my company.

What he wants is to evangelize me. To propagate his kind, the frontiersmen, by preying on mine. It almost worked. For a moment, I almost envied him.

Instead I cough and spit phlegm at the fire and close my eyes and think of Dolores, golden and smiling, surrounded by a vivid, pixilated decadence of light and color more real than reality, bunching the hems of her skirt in her hands to hold them up out of the surf.

#

By morning I am feverish, lightheaded. Valery wants to wait, to let me rest. I can’t just sit and let him tend me–not him. So I shake off the haze and start packing the canoe, and Valery nods and curls his lip and does not protest.

On the river, he adopts a slower pace, resting often, content to ride the current and let the wind keep off the flies.

It’s nearing noon, and I am flagging, drooping in my seat, when the high-tension power lines appear. They run alongside us for miles, monolithic, like Roman aqueducts, erected to lead civilization through barbarian lands, still standing long after civilization’s collapse. Kudzu climbs the poles.

Highway bridges strewn with wreckage arc past overhead. The surface of the river ripples with the breeze, and the smoke of Manchester burning rolls overhead. Green birds with fire-colored shoulders perch among the cattails, singing songs like the music of operating systems coming to life. Valery, in high spirits, sings the same songs back to them. He splashes me once in awhile, with a well-aimed slap of his paddle. I don’t complain; it’s a gesture of friendship, I think–and if it weren’t for that, the heat and fever would be unbearable.

He believes me changed.

How many laptops, I wonder, he has thrown into the river since the pulse? How many times has it worked?

I watch the banks for human shapes. This is dangerous country, close enough to what’s left of the resources that fighting might still be going on.

The power lines cross over our heads, heading west away from the river. Something makes me freeze: a sound, a sense in the air. Valery’s still singing; I pitch a handful of water at the back of his neck to shut him up.

In the quiet, I hear it. I feel it echoed in the throbbing of my head. The hum of a transformer.

We leave the canoe behind, climb the rough bank and cross the baking asphalt of the highway, weaving between abandoned cars. We follow the power line trail away from the highway into wilderness, a tree-lined corridor leading over rough and broken ground. Raspberry briars rip at my shins. Sweat pours down my face; salt collects in my collarbone and the hollow of my chin. The wind stiffens, thick with the sweetness of fern. I breathe shallowly, trying to swallow my cough. I realize I’m shaking.

The wind turbine looms from a barren hilltop, its silhouette like that of a giant, emaciated yet rigid, superhuman yet not divine, sweeping his second set of limbs across the sky in parallel with the first, waving them in exhortation to the heavens, prayer. And the gods, the satellites–they are granting what he asks. Giving him power. A congregation gathers, dwarfed, at his feet–perhaps twenty in all, sitting hunched or sprawled or rigid or dancing among the broken rocks the pulse could not touch and the ice age left behind.

Barbed wire surrounds them. At the gate, a stern man waits with a dense beard and a taser rifle. I gush at him, I babble, I have no idea what I’m telling him, what I might have done to convince him we are no threat. Valery says nothing. The bearded man opens the gate.

And then I’m kneeling on the lichen-covered granite with the others at the foot of the turbine, fumbling open my backpack, drawing out the computer, gasping incoherently at the orange LED that is already glowing, the battery already picking up charge. I paw for the power button, press my ear to the casing to hear the faint whirring that signals the incredible, miraculous rebirth of my mechanical mind. Then I lose myself within it.

A digital video, three and a half minutes long, of Dolores sitting on the hotel bed in a bathrobe, performing a puppet show. In one of her hands–the one with the ring–is a digital photo of me, displayed on the screen of her cell phone. In the other, a steamed towel some member of the hotel staff has twisted up into the shape of a swan. It is a monstrous, evil swan, and it devours me. At the end we both fall apart into laughter.

Not one of the twenty people here speaks to me, though every one of us made the pilgrimage here to communicate, to search for ourselves, our pasts and futures, to find the answers found and left for us by faceless friends. Having at last regained the medium we fought so hard to keep, perhaps we are no longer capable of exchanging ideas, emotions, except by digital means. But why should we care? Within the confines of this fence, all of us are half-immortal, and in earshot of heaven. The squat concrete structure at the base of the turbine tower–no one will say if the bearded man built it, or the reconstructionists, or if, like this hill and these stones, it has been here all along–but I learn that it hides a Tesla transmitter combined with a wireless switch. Endless power, available to anyone willing to remain confined forever inside a sixty-foot sphere. How did all twenty of us manage to make our way here? How did we find it? Sifting through dead links on corrupted servers, devouring the last of the reserves of the reserves of power, in blind hope of avoiding for another few moments the unpixelated, unframed, real experience of crying over loved ones’ corpses, lamenting the death of a civilization, and at last being forced to move on. I suppose it doesn’t matter. What matters is we found it, and finding it provides us with a purpose, an end to our quest. And a reason to return from questing to home. Heaven’s memory contains other lost loved ones than mine. Pete and Cassidy Brankin, Julia’s sons. They were good boys. Dirt-bikes and soccer.

The sun is going down. I hardly noticed it move. The last of the spare batteries I brought in my backpack now reads full. My fever, my illness is gone, my mind and lungs clear. It’s like I’ve been reborn.

Would I really want to go back, if Valery weren’t waiting?

He watches me, motionless, like a statue, not of Daniel Webster but Daniel Boone, seventeenth-century trapper rebel hero gone native, preserved on the back of a quarter for an uncomprehending posterity. The ball of one bare foot balances on a lichen-covered boulder; that wry, impenetrable smirk curls his lips; the smoke of some sage-scented herb from the edge of the woods trails away from the bowl of his pipe on the wind. This same wind that brings us power brings him… what? Wisdom? Disdain? A precarious independence. The capacity for change. Otherwise, I think I could have sat here forever.

When I make it back to Henniker with this wealth of resurrected knowledge, this wealth of power on my shoulders, this story to tell, they’ll welcome me as they did him. Hanging on my word, waiting their turn to shake my hand.

#

We walk back to the river together. The green birds with the red shoulders are still singing. I beg him to return with me. I argue that he can’t travel forever, that he already knows what has happened to the world, and his place in it. To say nothing of whether I’ll even make it on my own.

But the cool water lapping at our ankles is steady, flowing south towards change, the new, the burning city and the sea.

We clasp hands. The calluses in the folds of his thumbs are incredible. He must realize now he hasn’t changed me after all. But he still believes, no doubt, that someday we will all be like him.

I stand in the mud on the bank of the Merrimack and shove the canoe away from me into the current.


 


Michael J. DeLuca would like to tell you he lives in a cave in Western Massachusetts, pronouncing false prophecy in exchange for such essential sustenance as food, water and wireless internet. Alas, such caves are few and far between, and often occupied by fearsome squatters. So he advises you not go looking for him, and instead be content to read his fiction.


 

Story © 2009 Michael J. DeLuca. All other content copyright © 2009 Abyss & Apex Publishing. 





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