He could not see the horizon. He could only see the burning red sky as it laid waste to the evening hours. The top of the giant sun was just visible as it sunk below the western megablock. The black buildings blazed red with fury, like giant fingers grasping at the empty sky.
It was always red, but the evening red seemed to glance in strange patterns, the death of the day seizing the heat for a moment in its hazy skin, making the colossal wavelengths throb like bass notes. The sun’s giant eye was indifferent. We had adapted to its swelling, but it did not care. You’d think it would have appreciated the company – both of us lost souls in the long dark. But no. Both unjust and just have felt its touch. And soon, its touch would fade, bathing the night in cold.
In the mornings he walked east. In the evenings he walked west, pulling his jacket tighter as his sweat began to crystallize. He reached the door, then hallway, then elevator, then hallway, then door. A palindrome of habit.
His door was last on the left – UH-76514 – right next to the floor-to-ceiling window at the end of the hallway. Most nights he walked, unlocked, opened, locked, walked. Another palindrome. But some nights, as he stopped in front of his door searching in his backpack for the printcoder, his eyes flicked from behind his tintgoggles out the hallway window. The blazing ball of plasma just sitting there, dying. It didn’t care if he watched it or not – its death had been planned and prophesied, the decisions made long before the chemical fact of life could pull itself from nonmeaning to meaning. Nothing, to something-antisomething, to something. Not a palindrome. Strange.
He looked deep into the red corpse, the window and tintgoggles compensating for his poor decision. They were patient, but they had their limits.
Below him, out the window, the megablocks faded into a sea of solar panels, their bodies overlapping like the scales of a giant reptile. They prayed to the red god, aiming their souls to catch its grace. It had little to give these days.
He looked from the orb, to the scales, to the mountains, far in the distance. Their ragged bones starved of rain. Their peaks slicing slowly into the giant pomegranate. He had crossed those mountains years ago. Walking, then battle, then the failed coup, then battle, then walking. His feet had never been the same.
As a boy, he had not really understood. Someone had given him a large yellbezz and had told him to shoot people with it, so that’s what he did. They had told him it would help, that he was a hero, saving people. Which people? Our people. Which people are our people? These people. These people look like those people. You are too young, you do not understand. He had slept with the yellbezz at night, its body warming him. The same warmth that warped the faces in his dreams, the heat melting their bodies into his body. These people, those people. In liquid we are all joined together.
He found the printcoder and opened the door, instantly smelling the years of safety he had built here. The apartment was stubborn to allow it at first, but now they could not live without each other. Two lost souls in the long dark. The smell was friendship, the last he knew.
He had not had friends since the battles and coup. He was accepted, but rarely trusted. He could have left, but to where? Out there it was cold, then dry, then hot, then dry, then cold. His feet could never have taken him so far. Even now they were crying out, wondering if he had forgotten that they were home now.
He could have taken a trapcar or a betzliner, but again, to where? Citizenship was a precious trap that forced you down into the earth. Well, not the Earth earth. We had had to let her go, poor girl. She wouldn’t have liked it out here anyway, her beauty spoiled in the bleak darkness. Better to have burned. Better dead than red. Or was it red, then dead?
He was accustomed to the smell, now, which meant his senses were open to other enticements. He dropped his things on the floor of the living room and took off his jacket, then his belka-suit. He leaned against the back of a wicker chair, circling his head, then circling his ankles. Weight is what he felt. So much weight. The weight could dull his exhaustion if he let it, but at a price. He tried to avoid the kitchen with his gaze. There was a neutron star there, burning like an open stove, its gravity pulling at his brain, sparking the wisps of his neurons. Neurons, neutrons. Our memories are a letter away from nothing.
Ahead of him there were more windows, a wall of windows. They faced south, facing the face of the next megablock. There were thousands of eyes there, removing their tintgoggles after a long day, greeting the other souls they’d chosen. Their lights blinked on an off like bellowflies, glinting in the whistling twilight as the red relented and faded into a bruised purple.
In the top-right corner of the windows he could just see the pock marks of the Moon Sisters, peeking out from the haven of the mountains.
He stood on an authentic Qi’boztal rug in the post-Eplosian style. He had a keen mind for history and antiques, but this he had kept a secret. He dared not disturb our phantoms by way of gossip. The neutron star blazed on behind him, biding her time.
He shifted his feet again as he leaned on the chair. The rug had long thick brown bristles. It felt like dry weeds resting on a desert grave. Eplosia and their successors had been a hardy people, making things that could be bombed, and bombed again. Making things that could be burned, then frozen, then burned. Their comfort had been the promise of endurance and time. They had paved the way for the Diaspora, pushing our bones out beyond whatever mothers we had known. Earth, then cold, then rugs, then warmth, then rock. And below him, in the rock, the bones of memory creaked in their coffins. He knew he would have to invite them up if he wanted to visit the kitchen. That was the price of entry.
He watches in awe as big men lift foreign crates down from beige pack-trucks. They are smoking. He is smoking. Everyone is smoking. Ciga-laka butts lie on top of the pale lichen like forgotten finger bones. They lay there, dying, their lights fading. Some of them are not quick about it.
Jancovas and pack-trucks come and go. The morning mist is fleeting, but gives the lichen a spongy texture. The pack-truck tires roll heavily through it, turning the algae dark green for a moment. The rocks can be hard to navigate with short legs. He sits on a stone, watching, the yellbezz strapped around his shoulders. He holds in his left hand the small metal shape of a locket, tracing his thumb around it, absentmindedly. He forgets now who had given it to him. Or maybe he had found it in the rubble of Bayvola.
He can feel the cool air of the morning quickly evaporating, lifting into the sky like a flock of Boz-angels. Soon the ground will simmer, the angels being superseded by a billion demon tongues.
There are mountains ahead of him, jagged mountains. They are proud and powerful. They seem to say, “what a strange little rock, rolling for just a moment before dissolving.” Mineral, then chemical, then informational, then chemical, then dust. In rock the gods of gravity bind us all together. We swirl in the void, dancing arm-in-arm forever.
The man’s shoulders sagged. He stepped back from the rug and into the kitchen. He opened one of the cupboards and grabbed a bottle of red pills. He returned to the living room and sat in the hard wicker chair. The bristles of the heavy rug were now flat and quiet, as though sleeping.
Five more minutes and the bones in graves below him started to rise, their ethereal breath echoing through his apartment like Boz-angel song. He clicked a button on his cheek bone, just below his temple. Music began to drift through the room in shallow swells. It was Movement Six of Bymode’s Eighth—one of his favorites.
There was a heart-shaped locket on the small side-table next to the chair. He put the chain around his neck, the heart of the locket pulsing next to his own, beating together – metal and mineral and chemical and memory. Soon the metal was warm against his skin.
Hours passed. Many old friends came to visit. In the quiet between Movements, he could just hear the whistling of wind and rock pelting the solar panels outside. It sounded like ocean waves to him, even though he had never seen an ocean. In and out. Push and pull. The waves unearthing silt like the hands that touched his body. Some vindictive, others tender. He drifted along with them, melting into them until they were all one being together. One lost soul, drifting in the long dark, weeping often at the music’s gentle beauty.