The Last Days of Fire and Steel

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Dark grey stone everywhere. And me, on my back, shadowed by these blocks—some as big as a car. I'm insignificant, overburdened with a sense of dreadfully lucid proportion. The sky, full of dust and whirling galaxies, a fine stone mist swirling like smoke. And you not there; not slapping my face, not hauling me to my feet.

The buildings are like splintered shells around me, the skyline a mouth full of splintered grey teeth, crumbling and shifting into new configurations like a stirred ants' nest. It shouldn't be quiet; the air should be anything but undisturbed. With this level of destruction, there should be nothing but the trickling sound of shifting brick fragments, all stone chip tinkles and clicks. But perhaps my hearing will return in time, though gently flexing my jaw does little to reassure me.

These buildings. They used to be so strong. Now they’re simply newly-deserted husks, dry and spectral—and to think it was unthinkable that they should ever fall, should ever attain this state of crushed unreality. This place, so familiar, where only this morning I'd struggled to get through the train doors and into the selfish throng, pushed ahead of the rude and impatient, made polite way for those who seemed to deserve that smallest shred of respect. This place, this stronghold of humanity, where men on bikes spun in and out of cars filled with women who perched on moulded leather seats; where crowds of girls with bags slung on their shoulders made their way from one place to another for various reasons, from life-changing to entirely mundane; a myriad futile, human reasons, none of which matter now. There is no supermarket, no office and no humanity that I can see, save for you and I. Because I know where you are; I can see your hand from the corner of my eye, though my head—my dull, stone-filled head—won't move. Perhaps you’re speaking; I wouldn’t know—and that hurts.

I imagine spiralling upwards into the scarred blue sky, rising above the veins of black smoke, each one the mark of something vital disgorging its essence in great arterial spurts of soot. I’d turn, high above this destruction, and look down at you, my beautiful Lucifer. But back here, in gravity’s thrall, I can see far away to the right—a crater, and somehow on the rim there are buildings still standing; a circle of thick, carbonised girder, sheathed by tenacious fragments of concrete. A bomb, perhaps—anarchist or terrorist, take your pick—or a collision from space; maybe that meteor they always claim is out there with our name on it, just waiting to hurtle from that last great bastion, holding back the tide against mankind's arrogance? Or is this vision merely a reflection of the way the universe works; the interlocking teeth of the cogs that drive the world?

'I don't know what caused this,' I call out to you, but you don't answer. My head won't move, I can't feel my legs, and there isn't a bird in the sky. I can't hear my breathing, either, although I can tell that it's happening. It just goes on, without conscious thought, though it’s not without its own peculiar pain, soft and subtle on the intake. Yet even with each inhalation of pain, it goes on. And on. I wonder if my legs will work the same way, and so I imagine getting up and taking your hand in mine, so that it might just happen despite the pain. I’m holding your hand, I think, softly stroking the smooth web between your forefinger and thumb with my own, comforting you with just the touch of my hand. It has as much effect as my thoughts of flight, even when a tear winds its way down the side of my head, traversing the unfamiliar terrain of my ear, and I remain grounded on cracked paving, feeling the cold seep through my clothes and into my skin. It's like being too far away from home, somehow; it’s that moment when you realise you might never get back. Every birthday you've ever had, every Christmas we’ve shared—they crackle in my head like footfalls in a crisp frost, leaving tracks in their wake that I mentally pace over the next hour or so.

I used to tell you about my dreams, about the one where the whole world was still except for me. Or maybe, I’d say, it was just me that was standing still, and the whole world wasn't like an icy version of itself; it had just moved on without me and left me stationary and unaware. Maybe I just felt still.

‘Because I want to be still,' I'd say, and you’d nod, but I could tell you didn't really understand. ‘Because it’s all moving too fast,’ and you’d nod, again. And smile.

I’d wait for it to happen, sometimes. Alone, on a hillside with the wind and trees for company, or with sand between my toes and a sea froth clinging to my ankles, just waiting for the moment to come and last, that I might forever be lodged in that single bright space between one tick and another. But with a sound like rushing feet it would all come to an end; it would always come to an end.

'It's a beautiful dream,' you said once, still not really understanding what it meant.

And I lie here, thinking for some time.

There's a man coming closer, clothed in black. A single flash wipes you out of existence and comes at me through the ground. He bends low over my body, and I lie still and dead, my eyes focused past his head and past the weapon he presses against my forehead anyway. A good clean shot to the head, and I wait for it to come.

I don't know what you did, or what I didn’t. Perhaps you blinked, or smiled whilst I stayed still. Perhaps you mouthed words at him, maybe even said them, and maybe that's why he killed you. The man's mouthing words too, strangely. I don’t think my play dead act fooled him for a moment, but no matter—he stops speaking and moves away, the cold point lifting from my forehead and moving away with him. I don’t know why; but finally I'm lying here alone, with just my thoughts; properly alone, this time. Occasionally, I feel the rubble around me shift on the ground as they pull the trigger on a few other sorry individuals. People who were alive. People like me, but not so lucky. People, somehow, unlike me.

I wanted there to be something I could do. In all situations where I've ever been forced to remain powerless that's all I've ever wished for—the ability, or will, to be able to do something meaningful. And for now I lie here, paralysed and powerless, winding and unravelling the thoughts that twist their paths inside my head. They writhe about, like the trails of haemorrhaged smoke that fill the sky above me. You don't kill the survivors. To methodically search out those who aren't yet dead and carve an exit wound into the back of their head is not just frightening, not just morally wrong. It means more than that. And so I start to remember what I've really seen, because somewhere deep inside me I'm beginning to realise that there's more here. There was no earthquake.

You asked me why, once. Why did I love you if it hurt so much? And I've asked myself the same question so many times since, and I think it's only now, as I lie here that I think I've found the answer. I can't remember anything about the quake; a dull crump, followed by more noise than I've ever heard before—perhaps every sound I've ever heard replayed simultaneously over the space of a minute. In the absence of any more memories I've turned to thinking of you, again; it's too hard not to think of you. Your hand in the corner of my eye has become pooled in red, and it's now that I've finally realised why I still loved you all that time, all through the hurt and the miniature betrayals, and it's because of what would have been left behind. Inside me, at the moment, I can feel sand. I want to feel numb, to retreat into some inner place of sanctuarial unconsciousness, but I can't. My whole body feels like a blister full of grit, and I know now that if you hadn't been there all that time there'd have been no heaven and no hell, existence would have been the beating of my heart and the flooding of arteries, the pulse of cellular mitosis and withering silence of slow-growing stubble. That's all.

I've almost grown used to the gunshots—they've continued for what I think is about an hour or so, and there's been so many of them. Each one means another victim dead, I imagine, though for what purpose and intent I still can't fathom. They've been growing steadily less intense, each of these echoing executions, so the realisation that I can hear them as well as feel them is a moment of quietly-dawning euphoria. I rein in my enthusiasm, and I couldn't get up and shout about it even if I wanted to. Or so I assume. And then my euphoria raises to another level as I find that I can feel my legs. They're numb, the way I wanted to feel inside, and I realise that with supreme effort I can cause a slight—almost laughably slight—jerking in my left foot. The concentration required is draining, and the euphoria is replaced by a feeling of dreadful emptiness. There's hope mixed in there as well, and fear of what will happen. Added to the ragged, empty hole where you used to be, I'm beginning to feel quite emotional. Crying doesn't seem to do much, I find, except leave an unpleasant wetness on the sides of my face. Soon the light will fade, I think, as another gunshot echoes far away in the distance. I smile at it, thankful that I can hear once again, then stop, guilty about smiling at another person's demise. Life is full of contradictions, sometimes. And because no-one can see me, I smile again.

I start to wonder about aftershocks as I idly test my limbs once more. I don't know much about earthquakes but surely by now there should have been some further tremors? I'd have felt them, I was sure, but all I've felt so far have been the gun blasts that have now died down to a very occasional faint thunder in the distance. How far this damage extends, I don't know, but it's far enough to dull a shot to a faint crack in the silence, and it is still silent—no birds, no people. No insects, actually—no flies, I frown, searching from the corner of my eye. Your pool of blood is empty and still. It's very dark; I can see the edges have gone shiny and black in the faint heat of the afternoon, like burnt sugar, and now the sky is darker I begin to realise how it's going to be. I loved you so much.

I might have to undergo years of physiotherapy. Perhaps I should have let him end it for me, my soldier blue. Perhaps I should have let him push a bullet to the back of my skull and had it all over and done with. One hit; one final deadly touch, right on that spot where my mother would lay her goodnight kiss, her perfume wrapped around me like comforting arms.

A sudden thought hit me then, as I lay there. I suddenly realised that I might starve to death. Perhaps I should be thankful I don't live somewhere where there are vultures. But then there are crows. Ravens. Rats, even—there are rats everywhere. Except here, perhaps—there doesn't seem to be anything alive except for me and a few soldiers. The thought brought me to my knees, literally to my knees. My legs shook; they ached like my bones had been ground to a bloody paste. My pulse beat overwhelmingly in my ears, a pressure filled my skull and I leant backwards onto my heels, teeth grinding on each other but I wasn't going to lie down again. Gradually, the feelings washed away and I was more able to focus on the flattened landscape that stretched to either side of where I lay. Behind me were the buildings, the shopping centre we were leaving after lunch, you and I. Behind me, you're lying on the ground. I don't look at you for more than an instant, because as soon as I do there's a brief but intense struggle inside me. Perhaps it isn't you, I'm thinking, and if I hadn't seen the ring on your blood-marooned hand I could have pretended that this blown apart corpse was some other poor bitch, and the fine spray of blood I can see on the right sleeve of my shirt didn't come from your bullet-stricken flesh. So I concentrate on the levelled swathe of rubble and asphalt, following the misshapen surface round in a great wide arc from where I lie to the opposite end of the city, all the way round the great smoking crater that lies in the centre of what used to be civilisation. It's like a battlefield; I can see bodies over on the other side of the vast hole, although it's like looking across bonfire—the air ripples with the heat curling up from the chasm and an occasional column of smoke or steam jets up from somewhere in the depths. I hoist myself forward and unbend my knees so that I can crawl. The taste of blood fills my mouth with dirty metal and I run my tongue over the gritty film on my teeth. Blood still pounds in my ears like the distant rumbling aftershocks I waited for but never came. They won't come now. There was no earthquake.

The edge of the crater is further than it seems. Or I'm slower than I thought. Probably the latter, as I stop regularly to allow the piercing knot in my head to unravel into a dull throb, and then off again. I'm very much aware of the tall, half-deconstructed buildings behind me, cracked to the foundations but still holding—a good spot to hide, I'm thinking, for when night falls, or a good spot to pick off survivors from. The thought of snub-nosed death protruding from a cracked and blackened pane freezes me into immobility for a moment, but I convince myself I only stopped for the pain and push myself forward again and again. My knees feel wet but numb—that elusive numbness I've craved for so long!—and I pounder onwards, leaving a trail of faint, rough-edged bloody circles. The crater isn't far now, so I push myself harder, each step provoking a tiny involuntary cry, hoarse and ragged. I cough, again and again, and when I lift my hand away from my mouth it's airbrushed with red.

The edge is just in front of me. Asphalt ends suddenly, the road dragged downwards and inwards with such force that the crack is clean and sudden. I hook my fingers over the edge and lean out, staring into the depths. A kerbstone hangs next to me, half of it still wedged into the pavement, half dangling out over the remains of the city centre. I stare, dumbfounded at the contents of the pit, half-maddened by the fine-ground slick of concrete, flesh and metal. I remember now. Landmarks—I can see them on the other side of the crater; the statue I used to see from my window, and far over at the other side was the sliced-through main road that passed from our building to the other end of town. And there, at the centre of this place was our building, where we worked, you and I, and the soldiers too, they worked there. Not these ones, no—these were here to clear it all up. But the rest of us, we all worked there together, like one happy high-security family.

'They must have started the machine,' I call back to you, coughing up blood and no longer caring. I inch forward to the edge of the crater and pull myself towards the edge. It falls away steeply beneath me, down to this perfect circle of ploughed-up pinkish-grey. There is no way down and there's nothing I can do, not now, so I lie back and watch the sky. The clouds are so beautiful, and if you watch them you can sometimes see familiar shapes; cars and trees, fish and dragons or even butterflies. And soon the rain will come, I imagine, and wash all this away.


The Last Days of Fire and Steel is available on fxhash.

Source Code

Source code is available on github.