Desert wasteland

Dead Cities & Survivors (2008)

This story I worked on (to the point of entirely rewriting it several times) rather a lot after it was first written in… 2005? Maybe 2006? The version I ended up trunking was very different to those early versions.

A minor anecdote of interest: in 2008, around the time I was shopping this about for publication, there was some controversy concerning an SF editor who had included ethnic slurs in a rejection letter. I somehow began a small meme by declaring it ‘Post a Rejection Letter Friday’ one week in July, which various other writers disgusted at this editor’s actions joined in on. The story the rejection letter I posted concerned was this version of ‘Dead Cities & Survivors’.

Only one of the numerous people I asked to read this ever grasped the hidden narrative, which suggests to me that among its numerous other problems, it is too obtusely written (or obfuscated). I look forward to your thoughts in the comments.


Dead Cities & Survivors

My eyes open. I am awake, or reborn.

I am huddled up against a rock formation in the midst of a desert. I can see little else with my bleary vision, and can recall nothing with a mind still befuddled by sleep. Stiff joints creak as I raise my palms to rub arid sockets.

I open my eyes once more. Now things are clearer. Around me I can see scattered ruins, the relics of something that once was. There is a twitch in my mind: I think that I may remember something of this long-dead civilization but it will not come to me. I put the thought aside, intending to return to it later.

There is a bottle lying by my side, cold and smooth. Thirst pushes its unwelcome way into my consciousness, and I grasp and uncork the canteen. It feels light, near-empty, so I tip it up and pour the contents down my gullet. For a moment there is soothing relief, but then there is fire. I cough in surprise as the alcohol burns my ravaged throat, and drop the bottle as fluid seeps into my windpipe.

I cough for a while longer. When at last my throat and lungs have settled I pick up the bottle: it is chill glass again. I am confused. A moment ago it was a canteen, filled with life-giving water, but now the label clearly states that the contents are a bourbon whiskey.

I shiver. The desert is still cold but it is obvious that the sun is beginning to rise. With it will come heat and light. I stand, forgetting the conundrum, suddenly alive with the knowledge that I must find shelter long before that brilliant star is at her zenith. She is my constant and fiery companion; her presence always invited, her beatific radiance always welcome, but her brilliance nonetheless something I must shy from.

My hair whips in the wind. I put a hand to it, smoothing it out. It feels dry and rough, like salt and sand. There are patches where the hair has disappeared at the roots. On a tongue thick with dehydration and the aftertaste of bourbon, I roll the term around: rootless. Then I drop my hand and look about myself. One particular structure catches my eye; near where I have slept is a pillar of stone, clearly not of natural origin. The desert winds have heavily eroded it although it is still in one piece. I shift my weight from foot to foot to test them before I start walking toward the relic.

The sand is difficult to walk through and shifts treacherously underfoot. It is a struggle but I manage to stagger along with my arms out for balance. When I finally reach the monument it is a relief. I press my face against the stone and wrap my arms around it: I can encompass perhaps half the circumference of the obelisk. After a few seconds of rest I push back from it and glance down at myself. I can feel my muscles betraying me, weak and unreliable. How long is it since I last ate?

As I shift my gaze to an undefined point on the now heat-hazed horizon, I concede that it has probably been some time.

I look back at the monument to which I cling. The surface feels rough. The grains of sand that whip the stone must be large, for were they finer they would have polished it. I run a hand gently over the surface, imagining the passage of time that has marked it so. I feel a swell of pride that this thing still stands while the buildings all around it are decayed. I am sure that it was my people that built this, built it to mark something, built it to last. What it stands for has been forgotten, but it still stands and that counts for something.

Once again I feel recognition ranging around the encircled wagons of my mind, taunting me with the promise of knowledge. I shake my head, trying to loosen the cobwebs, but the memories will not come.

The wind is picking up and has begun to buffet me slightly. I fear a sandstorm, and indeed the sun and sky and horizon are becoming more difficult to see. Then my shoulder is suddenly jerked and I release the monument in surprise. As I move, I almost imagine that I hear a voice saying something to me. I dismiss this as madness, a trick of the wind. I do not remember how long I have been wandering this dead place but the sun and I have seen nothing else living for all that time. I have not heard my own voice for as long as I can remember, let alone that of another. Steadying myself, I gently finger my neck. I am unsure if I am still capable of speech. I realise that my throat is still parched and I am desperately thirsty.

Then the voice comes again: “…move along,” it seems to say. I stiffen and try to determine the source of the sound.

“…time to go.”

Behind me. I turn and raise an arm defensively, but there is no-one. There is nothing there but ruined buildings half-visible through the growing sandstorm. For a moment I am rational and know that I must find shelter. Then this moment is gone as a sudden and powerful gust of wind physically lifts and hauls me away from the obelisk. I panic that I am not in control of myself as I am propelled along, and I kick my legs frantically and ineffectually. Then, as suddenly as the gust began, it dies. I am dumped bodily into a small dune. I shiver in fear and otherwise remain motionless.

Shelter. I must find shelter. These winds are dangerous. The sun is still rising, her smiles and kisses too much for me to stand. I have to find cover. I have to survive. I push myself up into a kneeling position and brush the larger piles of sand from my ragged clothing. My eyes dart from side to side rapidly, surveying my surroundings. The pillar is no longer visible but there is a low dwelling not thirty metres from where I lie. It has three and a half walls and most of a roof. This is exactly what I need, so I begin to struggle towards it, moving in a stooped fashion that is half-walk and half-crawl.

The building is still a good ten metres distant when the winds come again. This time they hit me sideways when I am on all fours scuttling towards the ruin. Yelping in surprise and pain, I am lifted slightly up and roll sideways. I dig my hands into the ground to stop the tumble and then pull myself up again.

More squalls strike me. They are like a flurry of blows in their intensity and seem to come from all directions at once. Often the wind drives me downwards, pressing my body into a bed of coarse, cutting sand. It hurts but I grit my teeth and continue trying to crawl onwards. I know that I can only escape this storm by making it to shelter.

All of a sudden the wind subsides again. There is a final, sharp gust that catches me in the face and drives sand into my right eye. I squint and rub at it with the back of a hand, but do not stop crawling. I only need one eye to get to my objective. I feel blood running down from my nose.

Then I am there and I am safe. I haul myself fully undercover and curl into a ball in the furthest corner of the building’s shell. With shaking hands I draw my tattered clothes tighter around my body and up over my face. I leave a gap for my eyes to peer out and, thus protected, I watch and listen to the rising sandstorm for a time.

My mind begins to wander and I watch for shapes in the glowing waves and eddies of sand. Some of what I see troubles me. These visions tease me by hovering on the brink of recognition before dissolving back into formlessness. For some time I stare at these phantoms as they hurry past my refuge. Some of them are shaped like men and women but occasionally they are giants, all hulking and menacing. Sometimes they are even hunched and misshapen dwarfs. They grow in number as I grow in fear. Eventually I realise that every muscle in my huddled body is tensed. I also realise that these phantoms are figments of my imagination, and they present no possible threat to me. Slowly I let my eyelids drop. I keep them self-consciously squeezed shut for several seconds before I let them open again.

The phantoms have gone. I see no shapes now, just sand. I feel relieved and my muscles relax. Soon after, I fall asleep.

I waken to find that the storm has passed. Through the gaps in my temporary refuge I can see dim skies and the thin bands of orange and pink light that indicate a setting sun. I also see that only a little sand has heaped up around the ruin. Carefully I stretch my limbs and crack some sore joints. I shuffle gingerly towards what is left of the doorway.

Climbing outside, I feel relieved that my temporary madness has fled along with the cruel winds. Now I see nothing but that which is before me: sand and the broken tombstones of civilization. A sudden emotion wells up within me. I think it is regret.

As I look around I catch sight of a particularly proud-looking wreck. What remains of its walls and the holes where the windows once were is gorgeously ornate. There are stylised spirals along its frail corners, and horns and a worn-down nub that might once have been a gargoyle. I feel confident now that I regret whatever it was that brought this city down. I do not remember ever seeing any other survivors, so I can only assume that whatever it was that happened here, happened everywhere. Total social collapse.

I begin walking once more as twilight begins to glow around me. Daylight is ebbing and fading. This could be parody of the death of this city–my city, as I am coming to regard it–or perhaps it is a gesture of comradeship from my only companion. There is a raised platform just ahead, so I quicken my pace to reach it. I climb up and turn towards the densest area of light, raising my hand in a loving salute. The stars know the pain of this place. The sun deserves my respect for outlasting it.

From the raised perspective of the plinth I can see much farther. Although the size of some of the surrounding structures partially blocks my vision I still feel that I can see for miles. The twilight makes things indistinct and unclear but the silhouettes and suggestions of ruination are all that I need. I gaze around myself, filled with fresh wonder at the size of this metropolis. I can only imagine the labour and craftsmanship that went into the construction of this city. I want to know how it was done. Suddenly, although I have grown used to my desolation, I am filled with the desire to discuss all that I have seen with another. I want to share the memories of these moments and be inspired to understand that which I do not.

This is something that I can dedicate myself to. I will find other survivors, like myself. Others who have somehow withstood whatever happened to the people that once filled this city. Others who will understand me and whom I can understand. Together we can comprehend these places.

For a moment my heart wells up with sadness, an emotion that feels out of place in this moment. There is regret there, a sense of tragedy, and once again I feel the memories circle around my mind but they do not come in.

I suppress these sensations. As I stand atop the makeshift podium I decide that this is in fact an epic, even epiphanic moment. I move myself into a pose that feels powerful. My feet are far apart and my fists are clenched. I jut my jaw and stare out into the gathering dusk.

I imagine hearing a hint of laughter; self-conscious titters and the ghost of mocking howls. I ignore this. I have purpose and reason. I have a task. No ghosts can stop me from pursuing my destiny. I will fulfil it.

The city is silent around me as I stand alone.

[‘Dead Cities & Survivors’, Shaun Green, 2008. Cover image from Google Image Search.]

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