A story re-written to the theme: Sandstorm (Genre Sci-fi) for Worcestershire Writers’ Circle – ‘a challenge for me, not a genre I’m particularly familiar with’ I wrote these words some time ago, now, in September 2012, this story has been selected to appear in an anthology by Fantastic Books Publishing International ~ it was shortlisted for the Fantastic Books Publishing International Short Story Competition.
Dust to Dust
Tansy sat watching the dusty, scabby eccentric guy tinkering with a dirty old computer.
He kept muttering, ‘ All that’s left.’
Tansy, through the mists of a headache, thought he must be mad. How could he know what was left? He was old. Very, very old. She focused her fading eyes on him; concentrating until the image solidified. He looked at least 200, his puckered, peeling skin like burnt paper at the edges, his smell reminding her unpleasantly of spent matches. Her lungs tingled and her mouth was parched; every breath scorched her throat; her head hurt.
‘Garam,’ she croaked, oblivious that she had been repeating the name periodically for more than 48 hours. Nothing.
The ventowave said Europe and America had declared peace, its pocket-sized chassis pitted and scored by acidic dust that blew across the River Thames from time to time as if some great god were sighing over remnants. Nothing left of the Eastern Bloc. All desert, they said, little water. The world now half the size … She’d fought for the ventowave, clawing beneath rubble a foot deep, breaking fingernails, grazing knuckles, she’d even poked someone in the eye to get at the grey plastic radio first – they’d disappeared into thin air, there one minute gone the next.
‘Garam,’ she croaked again.
‘Stop bawling, girl,’ said the eccentric, ‘can’t you see I’m busy? Why don’t you help or go and look for your Garam?’
She glared at him, seeing that the tool he used on the computer wreck was a metal nail file.
‘Have you no proper tools?’ she asked, feeling her lips crack and bleed with the effort.
‘I have this,’ he said holding the file up, ‘And this,’ he gestured toward the computer.
‘What’s happening?’ Tansy asked. ‘D’you think it’s stopped or will it get worse, the dust and ..?’
‘It’s stopped for now,’ he said, quite more kindly given that he had other things on his mind than she expected, ‘I just need to make one small connection and then we can find out what’s ha …’ he was interrupted by the crackle of the ventowave.
‘Turn it up, girl,’ he said, taking a step towards her. She shrank back. ‘Turn it up so I can hear it.’
The disembodied voice proclaimed, ‘This is the World Service, 11 August 2389. Reports are coming in … shsssshsssh ..,’ crackling, nothing.
‘We’ll have to wait for the next one,’ she whispered, ‘I’m Tansy. Who are you?’
‘Eric. Eric Hawsley. Pleased to meet you Tansy,’ he held out a burned, crazed hand. She looked at it for a moment before taking it in her own.
‘Have you seen Garam?’ she asked.
‘What’s he like?’ Eric returned to his computer. She wanted to say: tall and dark, but that would be as good as no description and who was to say what he’d look like now? She was different; she looked at her hands, crazed, like a crackle glaze, just like a raku crackle glaze, just like Eric’s.
‘Have you spoken to any of the Reptilators?’ Eric asked.
‘You’re the first being I’ve spoken to since …’
‘You know they’re claiming power?’ he interrupted.
‘They’re saying …’ he cursed as the metal file snapped, the sharp end flying up and gouging his cheek. ‘Damn,’ he brushed slimy pink blood from his face. ‘They’re saying they planned the whole thing, that they made peace with America. If we support them we live, if we don’t ..,’ he continued to fidget with valves and coax.
‘But it’s not them on the airwaves,’ protested Tansy, ‘people in power always take control of the airwaves first.’
‘How many ventowaves do you think there are, Tansy?’ asked Eric, his cynical grin emphasising the grotesque mask of a face. ‘The only information comes from others before they ..,’ he didn’t finish the sentence as the computer buzzed into life. ‘Ah-ha!’ scales of skin fell from his face. He tapped commands on the keyboard. The wound on his face continued to drip pink viscous pus-like fluid. Tansy couldn’t help herself, she moved further away, pain shooting through her legs as she rose.
‘Are you going for food?’ Eric asked, intent on the screen.
‘I will. There’s plenty about.’
‘Look out for Reptilators,’ he warned, ‘they move so quietly they’ll be on you before you know, and those fire-guns are lethal, burn you to a crisp before you even hear them.’
She left the ventowave with him – more as a guarantee she’d be back than anything – turned and slowly picked her way through the rubble away from Trafalgar Square. It was a gentle irony, she grimaced, that Napoleon, having usurped Nelson for the past two centuries peering over the French colony of London, should now be lying, tricorne smashed, as much a broken man as he was after Waterloo.
The boulevard seemed deserted. Whirling, searing dust-ridden air clogged her failing vision. Tansy could sense rather than see movements in the shadows. Makeshift tents were formed from chequered blankets thrown over upturned bins and dissected lampposts. There were no dead. Where were the dead? A hint of suspicion nudged at her. She pushed it to the back of her mind. The dust was cloying, making each breath painful, the ash biting and cold, nipping, pinching at her face and arms. She coughed. It got everywhere, eyes, ears, skin, mouth, throat, lungs. She shuffled past the colonial buildings and the windows peered back at her blindly, no movement within.
Inside a store a scraping alerted her to another presence. Fear stopped her. One of the Reptilators? She flattened against a half-raided container.
‘Come out of there! Whoever you are!’ growled a ratchety voice. She didn’t move. ‘Come out or get incinerated.’
She couldn’t see, tried to focus, made out the nozzle of a fire-gun edging toward her. Moving excruciatingly slowly, arms painfully raised, she eased around the corner to confront the holder of the fire-gun.
‘Garam!’ A finger of steel strapped itself around her head and squeezed. She was almost horrified to see him alive. With her nerves at screaming point she sobbed ‘Oh, Garam, you’re alive.’
‘Tansy!’ He looked as bad as she’d feared, even so she moved slowly into his outstretched arms and covered his flaking face with a multitude of kisses, ignoring the stench off his flesh and the weakness in her legs.
‘What are you doing with a fire-gun?’ she asked, ‘Where have you been? Where were you when it happened?’
‘Hey, hey, one at a time,’ he smiled and, as with Eric, the movement caused great wadges of skin to break free. ‘Come on. Let’s get out of here before …’
‘I’ve got to take food to Eric,’ Tansy explained about Eric and the computer he’d got working. Garam watched her collect what she needed, saw the agony in her face as she struggled to carry the bag, and took it from her. They set off back to Eric. Garam slowed his pace so that she could keep up with him.
‘Where are the bodies?’ she asked. He didn’t reply, so she asked him again.
‘There are none,’ he finally said. They were almost back at Trafalgar Square. Tansy heard the computer. She placed a delicate, peeling hand on Garam’s arm, stopping him in his tracks.
‘Where are they?’ she said and the suspicion she’d had earlier took shape. ‘Are they the dust? The ash and dust?’ Tears caught in her face.
‘They are, Tansy,’ Garam said gently, ‘They’re blowing over the Thames.’ She turned away sickened; the dull sulphurous dust, all that was left, dust to dust. Another gust of searing wind brought with it a hail of acidic burning particles. Tansy held her head as more pain gripped her. Garam, his arm around her heaving shoulders, guided her to where Eric was staring fixedly at the screen.
‘There are Eurobod’s left in hiding,’ said Eric without preamble, ‘they have the airwaves. They’re saved but stuck miles away in the country. They’ve no hope of running the continent from there. There aren’t enough ventowaves working to let people know they’re alive and the Reptilators have seized power with help from …’ Eric looked upwards.
‘If some ministers are left, someone to oppose them,’ Garam said hopefully.
‘Too late my boy,’ said Eric shaking his head, hair and scales floating from him like petals from a cherry tree. ‘Too late. The Reptilators have got to the city first. They have control because they’ve taken it. They’re here.’ He sat down heavily no longer staring at the screen. Drawn to the screen, Garam and Tansy could make the word ‘DELETE’ stamped across it in huge green capital letters. Garam stiffened, Tansy fluttered down beside Eric, weeping silently.
‘All’s lost,’ her frail voice tremored fading to an echo, ‘ost … ost … ost …’ as she dustily drifted across the River Thames.
Polly Robinson © 2012