The corrections officer ran the biometric scanner up Graham’s breast. Bold, digitized, red, it declared: EXPIRED. Many observers would have still called him a child at his sentencing, those decades ago when the implantations began. The need for prisons crashed when repeat offenders carried explosives somewhere on them.
Graham had knuckled down. Studied hard. Added letters of all sorts to the end of his name. Stayed whole while other boys from his gang tried again. Lost arms. Faces. Lives. He would be a model example of the project’s positive effects. Took a role in the implant factory to prove his route to reformed citizen was complete.
The officer waved him off, a free man. He left, cycling the serial numbers he’d memorized. The list of duds he had approved for use. Graham would contact their owners tonight. He had just the job in mind.
The flare casts a ghost light over that landscape shorn of trees or shelter. We conscripts knew the hills where the enemy dwelt and assembled the last guns known to the sane. Laid fire on the mountainside until nothing remained. Trees splintered and threw themselves into matchwood. The aftermath of a windless storm. Only raw earth to bury the very green of this world’s last goodbyes.
Now we man posts on this barren and forsaken expanse to our doom. If a figure moves in the midst of that friendless waste, our orders to fire again. Yet naught but stillness for months. Food runs low. The men wonder if we are the only ones left. I order them to stare down their sights, and throw flares hopelessly up to the black.
In the vermin light of fibre-optic reception he worked his quest a decade. A skintight cap dotted in electrodes cartographed his neural network. Human condition boiled of a soul, reduced to raw mathematic anatomy, synaptic charges.
The tiny box pulsed with promethean intent and his hand weighed the power cable. He thought of how he would have a replica for eternal company. In want of a body when there was only one body to be had.
The cool earth of a garden freshly dug pooled on metallic casing. Anything more violent would be murder, he thought. Anything less, a suicide.
The youth swung himself over and over the climbing frame bars in the hope that if he inverted the world enough, something would change.
He watched the river upended. Across the stream padding over the decade-moulded pebbles to the vast floodplain cut by a storm years past. Mud and silt half submerged a pair of goals on a pitch that once had been. With a finger he traced the spot where the diamond plates lay buried like headstones after an avalanche.
Righting himself, he wondered what it would be like to see a child again. A pushchair rotated in the current.
The conversations the locals brought into her bar over the past weeks only added to her unease. Annie had been closing earlier every night.
“Time, gentleman, please,” she declared again, her eyes shifting to the door. A regular at the bar, and a young pair in the back. Two she’d not seen before. Newcomers made Annie nervous.
This winter everyone about the frontier towns told the same tales. Of gangs arriving in midnight hours on the backs of brutalized automobiles. Or by packs of routing sled dogs fed on human detritus. Of the shrines that rose in the corners of the smaller hamlets decorated in harvested digits affixed on strings and necklaces of palms. All for deals sworn over human entrails to beings reawakened on the sun’s long and unaccomplished dying.
“You leave it any longer and youse are going to catch your death,” she cast a glare and dragged the breechloader shotgun from beneath the bar, her heart in her throat. That soon got all seats clear.
She patrolled the empty room and set the latches on each of the frost-clouded windows. Extinguished the wicks of table lamps, weapon in hand. A sound rose behind her from some darkened corner and stopped her dead before she locked the door.
“That old smokewagon you got,” the regular spoke from the edge of his lips. She turned on her heel and saw in his hands a pair of dull handcuffs, painted black in ash out a hearth. “How quick do you think you can jam in another shell once you’ve fired?”
From outside came the braying of hounds.
He was about to count the rounds in the revolver once more when his daughter spoke.
“Are we really leaving?” the tiny girl asked. He returned it beneath his yellowed pillow and lay listening to the hiss of the gas stove. The features of the squalid room hid in the murk beyond the glow.
“It’s time for bed,” he said a second time, and rolled up to his knees. He pushed a hand to the glass. The snow climbed higher than the windows months ago and drew away his warmth in moments. “Don’t you remember? We have to wait until the morning.” He lay back down beside the flame and tried to think of the last time they saw the sky.
“Can we leave the lamp on until I’m asleep?”
“Of course,” he kissed her forehead and turned the light down a little. In the gloom and the quiet he crept his hand beneath the cold of his pillow to grip the weapon’s handle. He closed his eyes and awaited the change in her breathing. She would fall asleep first. She always did.
A few gondolas dangle from guideropes about the pier. At its end the tour boat in the shape of a swan. It used to ferry people for photo opportunities around the volcanic lake.
A draggle of sepia couples hand in hand all bemoan the same topics. The still declining hours of daylight, and the accumulation of fresh curses, desiccated souls, and the entities summoned by flutes made from human bones. The pier grows quiet once they’re all on board.
I watch the craft daily through an eyeglass in my hidden shack on the shore. Hooded shapes sell tickets to the bottom of the lake from the back of the swan for a negligible fee. The boat rarely returns with the same number of folks with whom it left.
It came like a funeral march over the fens of dry rice paddies. The beasts called from some unilluminated place just through the hedgerow and the patrons pushed their refusal and earbuds deeper.
They first arrived as envoys and company volunteers and each held on them somewhere a deed for their return. Wrapped up in pledges of reimbursement and guarantees and promises paid in full.
Distant lights of the approaching carriages preceded a horn’s cry in the dark. Everyone knew there was no going back. Not from here. Still, all huddled to board, and carried their thoughts of home.
The bone cabinet stands in the living room, in an alcove away from the TV. It disturbs the occupants’ sleep. The cabinet holds them undying, in service to the family, until such a time that their remains might be released.
The chinoiserie tea caddy keeps the smashed assemblage of Henniwood, Father’s secretary. Mr. Kensington was pounded into dust and poured into the terracotta urn. To oversee the accounting. The small glass hummingbird? That’s Aunt Lucy. The hourglass I set there this morning is Father. The bone cabinet was his creation, after all.
Strike the summoning bell three times and speak your command. They cannot rest until it is done.