By Tom Dullemond
The batteries of Kaula’s brain prosthesis kicked into low power mode just as the first gust of the storm shook the building. She had followed the installation steps for the emergency archaeological beacon, ticking each checklist item on the provided tablet, but as her implant failed the words and pictures jumbled around in front of her. In an instant, geometric meaning collapsed into flavours and shades and on cue anxious tears welled up in her eyes. In the top right of her vision a red light flashed ominously. The numbers that would normally indicate battery level were just meaningless spirals now.
‘Did you type the code in?’ Reeshard yelled from upstairs, in the gaps between the bangs of his hammer as he nailed down the doorway.
‘I can’t read it!’ she yelled back. The storm outside chased howling ghosts through the living room. Their loose scavenged papers on the table–pre-Quarantine bills, notices from a school, old photographs–fluttered tentatively, as if deciding when to make a break and dance through the air.
News said the bulk of the unexpected storm was ten minutes away. The house, though long abandoned, was one of the Early-Storm-Years overbuilds, so more than capable of withstanding the predicted onslaught. Whether the barricade Reeshard was putting together upstairs would keep out the roaming wild robots that had noticed their dig site was a different matter.
Reeshard rushed down the stairs, each louder-than-necessary thud announcing his displeasure, throwing himself down onto each step as though the storms were her fault, and that somehow being unable to read properly was in and of itself a deliberate act, and that somehow everything that had come before and would come hence was therefore not only her fault but her deliberate choice and…
Kaula squeezed her eyes shut, wiped the tears clear. She gritted her teeth and breathed slowly to let her thoughts calm. He doesn’t know I didn’t get to recharge today. How could he know?
‘Seriously? Now?’ Reeshard grabbed the tablet out of her hands and stepped through the emergency checklist, flicking switches and typing codes into the rectangular orange block of circuits and coiled antennae that would be their only link to civilisation while they hunkered down through this storm. ‘Just charge the stupid thing every day, how hard is that? Or keep it in low power mode or something.’ His gaze flicked to the small pressure pad at her temple. Did he think she had powered down deliberately?
‘It’s been an intense day, Reeshard. I can’t help thinking.’ She rubbed her eyes again, and hurried to the table to rescue their trove before the wind caught it and threw it around the room. Reeshard mumbled something she didn’t catch. With a thin whine the emergency beacon powered up and pinged as it connected to the network and tagged their location. With Kaula’s prosthesis in low power mode the sound was a faint reassuring mauve that washed across her ear.
She began to pack their archaeological findings into the waterproof bags, carefully laying thin plastic sheets between the papers and photographs so they wouldn’t stick together. It helped to focus on something simple when she found her brain on the brink of collapsing back into her unaugmented self. Try not to think.
The howling wind rose to a brilliant crescendo then fell silent. Reeshard pulled a chair back and sat heavily next to her, breathing out. The colourful cacophony of chair leg scraping on plastic kitchen tiles bounced around the room.
‘At least they’ll know where to find our bodies now if the bots break through the door upstairs.’ Reeshard chuckled to himself but Kaula didn’t think that was particularly funny.
‘I don’t want to think about that right now,’ she said. ‘I told you we were going too deep into sentry terrain this time.’
‘You should probably not think about anything.’ His tone was grey but it was likely that he meant it literally. Some meditation would quell her whirlwind mind and save energy. But how long would this storm last?
Her reply was cut off by the sudden void of sound and colour in the room, the mauve that trickled away. Reeshard pushed himself half-out of the chair, frowning. ‘Aw man, the beacon’s offline.’
‘Is it chaffwind?’ Kaula sat up hopefully. ‘News was wrong about the storm, maybe it’s wrong about the approach, too. If the angle brings it through one of the mounds the sky will be full of the stuff.’
‘Doesn’t matter where it came from, does it, if the network’s down.’ Reeshard made his way to the beacon, prodding at it. Kaula couldn’t make sense of the signs on the screen. It was covered in strange hieroglyphs and swatches of colours, not recognisable words.
‘Reeshard, if it’s chaff we need to find a higher point for the beacon; get a definite line of sight to the arcology at Campbelltown Shores.’
He muttered something dark but she wasn’t sure if it was just her mind crossblending senses or a real mumble. He seemed to have ignored her though, and hefted the beacon under one arm.
Reeshard looked up. ‘They weren’t too happy when we passed through. I doubt they’ll be pleased to get an emergency beacon call. How much time before you run flat?’
‘If I keep mindful, keep myself thinking clearly, maybe a few hours?’
‘And then what?’
She stopped. ‘I don’t know. It’s never happened. I had lots of seizures as a child, episodes of catatonia…? But that was years ago. The brain’s plastic, who knows how it’s adapted to the implant. It might kill me if it goes completely flat, like pulling a plug in my brain.’
‘I’m not letting that happen.’ He carried the beacon up and over to the table, setting it down with a grunt just as the wind started howling coolly again, a soft blue rising hum around the house. ‘I don’t want to rely on getting you through a seizure, so the priority is we fix your battery. Worst case we jack one out of the beacon. It’s not rechargeable but we’ll figure something out. You use an induction charger, right?’
Kaula didn’t answer. She closed her eyes and focussed, rubbing her temple where the prosthetic pressure pad sat on her skin. She tried to tune the deepening blue of the storm sounds out of her mind. After a brief silence she opened her eyes again and said, clearly but without emotion: ‘If it’s chaffwind all the old military bots outside will be offline, too, Reeshard. We can get out past them, then up higher with the beacon, reestablish connectivity. And there will be more sunlight on the ridge too, for the panels. And on the way we grab as much old robot tech as we can get onto the truck.’
She could see his face shift, a struggle between choices. Collecting leftover war units was usually slow, painful and risky; if the net went back up during salvage the wild machines would probably tear them apart. And with News offline there was no way to be certain when the military anti-EM-chaff that filled the sky would be blown clear and reconnect the bots.
But then that other choice… If they came back to the local arcology with wild bots their little ragtag archaeological outfit would rocket to fame. She laughed at the notion. No Australian rocket had left the continent since Quarantine. Not a single one of the remaining satellites that might’ve helped News with its weather predictions was Australian.
‘It’s worth a shot,’ Reeshard said eventually. ‘How many captured bots at Campbelltown Shores? Two, maybe three? If these hadn’t come chasing after us they wouldn’t be lying on the front lawn upstairs for the taking now, right? Golden opportunity, fortune through misfortune and all that.’ His words were tinged with gold themselves, a lighter, warmer glow than the cold grey from before, when he’d been wrapped in one of his moods. ‘They’ll resupply us for a year, at least, if we trade them those.’
He tapped at the table, glancing at the documents they’d salvaged, and took a breath. ‘Okay, so we grab the beacon, make sure those bots are offline, then make a break through the storm to the truck. We dump the beacon inside the cab, try to get as many of the bots tied down in the back as possible, then floor it to the crest. At one point the beacon will reconnect and if the robots wake up en route, well, let’s hope they can’t get through the cab.’
‘Sounds like a flawless plan,’ Kaula said and watched him smile in response.
‘Right. We give it half an hour to pack this place up, see what the storm is doing, then make a break for it.’
They peeled the barricades back and tried to ignore the deep gouge in the middle of the scarred wooden door. Visibility was down to a few tens of metres, but Kaula could make out a silhouette where they’d left the truck in their hurry to get into the shelter. It pulsed a light yellow in her muddled vision, while purple tendrils of wind swirled around it. It looked as though a jellyfish had been washed downstream and stranded itself against their home.
Near the front door entrance a bipedal automaton twice the width of a human lay curled on its side. Although mostly smooth and white, with occasional glistening steel where the wind had sandblasted its skin, she saw it had an entirely fabricated left arm, with a metre long sharp spike welded to the end. She shuddered.
‘That one’s too big to get in the truck,’ Reeshard mumbled. ‘But I’ll grab some pictures, should be worth something.’ He pulled out the camera and snapped a hurried few angled shots so they could partially reconstruct it on the computers back in the arcology.
Kaula’s ears strained at a hint of sound from the direction of the truck. It was a sound burdened with familiarity, like a word waiting on the tip of her tongue. She looked away from Reeshard’s documenting, squinted her eyes against the breeze, ignored the patter of wind-borne particles against her jacket. The sky above and behind them was filled with the flickering black static of anti-EM chaff. Her gaze drifted towards the spiralling flurries and for a moment it was as if words themselves might form out of those chaotic fractals, as if she had pushed past a level of understanding where meaning became noise and noise became meaning.
Two strange shapes near the truck twitched, and the angle of their movements filled her mouth with a sudden cloyingly sweet wave that curled down her throat and pricked the back of her eyes. She frowned back up at the sky. Could it…?
‘Reeshard, I think the chaff’s fading! Run!’
He looked up at her, frowning, glanced over his shoulder at the truck. ‘How do you…?’
She grabbed his hand and started running towards the truck just as the bot at their feet unfurled like a white-and-chrome fern. The wicked spike arm jerked into life and the whole wretched thing began to roll onto its side to stand up.
Ahead of them the strange shapes near the truck were righting themselves too; smaller sentries, but doubtlessly as dangerous. How long did it take for one of them to reboot? It was all old military hardware, right?
‘To the right!’ Her backpack bounced heavily on her back, all their little archaeological bric-a-brac in the protective sleeves, the emergency beacon folded up for transport. Each thud washed sensation across her neck, over her cheeks. The pounding pressure of her boots in the dry packed soil of the road sent a dull red thumping in the back of her head.
The bot behind them hadn’t onlined enough by the time they reached the truck, and the two smaller ones beside the cab, though upright, did not react to them. Kaula rushed to the door, Reeshard still at her side, and slammed a fist on the release panel. Gibberish flashed back at her.
‘Hand print.’ Reeshard moved beside her and pulled a glove free. The door flashed greener with his hand and slid open, and the wind and sand swelled in dark drifts up and past them, washing into the cabin.
The world went dark around them again, but Reeshard didn’t seem to notice.
‘It’s… it’s…’ Kaula struggled with the words, stammering. In her vision, her battery light pulsed a deep, bloody red. Both bots collapsed in an emerald swirl beside her. ‘Net’s down again. Quick Reeshard, help me load them.’
Reeshard nodded curtly and punched some buttons in the cab, stepped out around the back and helped her lift the inert shells onto the open back of the truck. Though half the size of a person, they were dense and they dropped heavily into the tray.
‘I need to sit down,’ Kaula said, leaning on her knees. She looked around, back to the old Overbuild structure below and the larger disabled bot near the entrance. The world hummed and trembled around her, the thrumming chorus of wind and squall in flashes of blue, mauve and purple. Above, far above, lime fragments like gossamer flickered and tangled. Further up the road, barely visible in the storm colours, darker filaments seemed somehow stronger.
Reeshard finished strapping down the bots and helped her into the cab, sealing the door. As though doused in ice water, the colours dampened, the storm muted. She breathed deeply, closed her eyes again. The storm song called out to her as the engine kicked to life and the car pulled away.
The wind battered at the cab as they drove through the grey, the bots rattling ceramic and aluminium behind them. The sounds filled the cab with sharp green spikes, like veins that darted outwards across her eyes.
‘Those bots,’ she said, trying to ignore the spikes in her vision. ‘They… there’s a lot of self-patching and repair work. And that big one… That arm spike didn’t look original. If they can fix themselves, how long before they finally fail? Who drops an army of robots into a country and just leaves them there after the surrender?’
‘Who knows what they’re for now. They connect to the net just like us but it’s all opaque messaging. They’re obviously being controlled by a central system somewhere. Maybe that’s the thing sending out upgrade orders for killing spikes.’ He laughed. ‘Maybe we can sue the world to drop Quarantine, what do you think? Once we figure out how to get the world to listen to us again?’
‘I read that early last century some Dutch citizens sued their government for climate inaction and won,’ Kaula said. ‘Maybe if we’d done that too we wouldn’t have Quarantine.’
‘Well, the Netherlands has to be completely underwater by now, so fat lot of good it did them.’
The sky flashed purple.
‘Do you think they’ll ever lift Quarantine, Reeshard? I mean, Australia’s an easy target, I guess the world doesn’t care anymore. They made their point.’
‘The world’s passed us by, Kaula. But every one of these bots we bring home is another opportunity. Given enough time someone’ll either crack the encryption and sneak onto whatever’s left of the global net, or we’ll realise there’s nothing left out there, and everyone fell to pieces fighting their own storms and floodwaters.’
Kaula dug through her backpack and pulled the beacon free. It pinged once and she glanced over her shoulder to see if she could spot movement through the small viewport in the back of the cab. The bots remained motionless.
Reeshard slowed the truck as they hit a narrow track. They bounced briefly then accelerated again. ‘We just have to be able to talk to each other again,’ he said. ‘This line-of-sight network business and the leftover war bots wandering the Bush is killing us. If we had resources and clear skies we could lay fibre across to Queensland and Victoria but…’
‘If we had resources and clear skies the world would still be alive, Reeshard.’
‘My mother was five when Quarantine started. She was ten when Australia stopped fighting back and those bots were left to wander the countryside. She can’t remember much of it at all. As far as she’s concerned, and as far as you and I are concerned, we’ve always been cut off from the world. Nothing will change that. And it’s all just political posturing anyway. Someone needs a scapegoat to make a global point, they all agree to pick on the country that’s dragging its tail the most on climate mitigation…and blammo, half a century later here we are.’
Kaula looked outside, at the gloom and wind and storm.
‘How many people survived the resource wars anyway?’ Reeshard said angrily. ‘Maybe the rest of the planet is empty and we don’t even know it yet. Or someone invented some really cheap space tech and sent colonies to Mars, started terraforming it or something. We don’t know, and we can’t know, and we’re stuck here.’
They drove on for some time without speaking, rising through the whipping winds up the hill. Kaula closed her eyes and tried to focus on deep breathing exercises, despite the red rumble of the wheels and the keening blue song of the wind outside. The rattle and clanging and the storm dust scattering against the windscreen surrounded her in a syncopated chromatic whirlpool.
As they neared the top of the ridge the bots started scraping at their bonds in the back of the truck. Each exploratory clink tunnelled into her ears, like a cymbal crash that punctuated the howling wind.
‘I tied them down hard,’ Reeshard said, but his voice had that sombre grey tone to it, his concern palpable.
That was when Kaula’s prosthetic finally dropped into stand-by and the world unleashed a baritone roar of brass chords and discordant colour tones that folded against her then swept her back inside herself.
Something tinkled and crashed nearby, something that might have been words but whose meaning had all but collapsed into a fountain of shades and sparkles, a marimba cascade. She felt something shaking her. Reeshard? Direction had forgotten itself, gravity was a harmonic echoing wheeze that pulled her arms aside. She scrambled for meaning in the world, solidity, stripped her gloves bare to feel leather seats, plastic walls.
Another crash, this time from her side, and the full blast of white world swamped into her, purple currents and gossamer threads of gold, curlicues of wind and honeysuckle and the lightest blue threaded with a poisonous green.
Kaula twisted, unsure what she was holding, felt a sudden sharp twist of gravity and a musical sting across her face and then she was rolling, tumbling. She shut her eyes tight, felt the world curling around her in its howling chorus. Marimbas again from the side, a tinkle of cymbals.
She rolled so that gravity was behind her, opened her eyes with a fierce determination. Above her the world was spirals and whorls of colour. She opened her mouth to scream for Reeshard, but the notion of sound-that-was-words had been utterly subsumed, more powerfully even than the way numbers and letters had collapsed into geometry for her earlier.
As she lay wide-eyed beneath the sky, the green filaments she’d spied earlier coalesced far above her, an intricate web of connecting and disconnecting threads. Some drifted with the wind and others tangled clearly together, reaching down and deeper like a funnel before spreading out where they touched the ground. She pushed up against the rumbling surface of static beneath her, locked her eyes on the green, contrasted so sharply against the whipping purples and blues and reds of the wind. Three points, three dots…
She could think in concepts but words were beyond her. The beacon was in the truck though. And the two bots.
Two of the points started moving towards her steadily, while the third shrank at first but then seemed to change direction. The music around her shifted in tone, and although she could barely stay balanced, there was an understanding in her, a deep, powerful connection to the colours and shapes and sounds that enveloped her.
She couldn’t see, not really, but she could see.
Far in the distance, past the furthest swirling coils of deep purple storm, a darker shade shredded the web above, riding wind currents like knifes. The rushing tinkling of it was like a tsunami sigh across the sky. Chaff? It was still far away but approaching rapidly.
Closer by, the two green clusters approached rapidly, and as the first came within striking distance she stepped nimbly aside through a dark blue gap in the buffeting winds, a momentary curtain of solitude in the storm, as if she herself was playing notes and chords by dancing through the tides and countertides of the chaos around her. It was one of the bots, undoubtedly, barely slowed by her sudden evasion.
The second rushed at her. Again she spotted a colourful eddy that spiralled across a rise in the harsh buzz of the ground beneath her. It washed upwards and thrummed directly into a wall of oncoming purple gust, shattering and melding the shades so that again the bot missed her and she stood clear in a momentary rest in the song, an intake of breath before…
The third point of light flashed past her in a crescendo that burst the two bots into fireworks of fuchsia and reds. Something struck her hard in the forehead, a bass note that briefly coloured her vision orange. She tried to speak again but all that came out was the rush of the ocean, a hiss of countless waves and rocks, all whispering in harmony, as the black chaff tide above roared across her skies.
She woke up. The battery light in her vision was a cool green and tiny numerals flicked to 24%. She could read again. The world was quiet. No colours edged into her vision. The sky outside the cab was clear and blue.
‘Hey, glad you’re back,’ Reeshard leaned into her field of view and wiped her forehead. ‘Nasty shrapnel knock on your head after I ran down those bots. I guess you had a seizure back there after all hey? You shouldn’t open doors in a moving vehicle, just, you know, for next time.’
Kaula was too confused to smile. The world was so quiet now, so lifeless.
Reeshard squeezed her shoulder and said, ‘I parked in wind-shade near the top of the hill and the beacon is back online, line of sight to one of the towers, blue skies. At least they’ll know we’re safe for now.’
‘Ok.’ Kaula blinked, still disoriented in the relative peace. She missed the colours and lights, the orchestral sweep, swimming through the world…
‘Reeshard, back when the bots were chasing me–I could see them. Them and the beacon, in the truck.’ The words fell out of her, new with meaning. She could almost taste their freshness. ‘It was the net, I could…see it somehow, in colours and sound, and the bots connected to it, and the beacon. The world was paints and blowing curls and all the storm was singing around me, and I knew where it was going and in what direction, as though the currents shaped by the mountains were a colour map.’
Reeshard looked at her, waiting for clarity.
‘And most of all, I could see where the chaffwind cut the web, I could see where the bots can’t chase us.’
‘Is chaff something we can rely on? It didn’t stop them enough back in the war.’
‘There’s always interference, it doesn’t have to be from chaff. There are plenty of places that drop connectivity, be it from mountains or weather. But… I can see it. I can see it, so I can guide us through it.’
‘Hm.’ He cast a glance at the back of the truck. ‘We have supplies for several months, and the batteries recharge in clear skies.’
‘We can open the continent, Reeshard. Quarantine cut us off from the world but the military bots keep us apart internally too. Imagine if we can open those lines again? Imagine if we can find where they’re offline, send parties out to salvage them one after another, open paths through the mountains and storms until Australia is open again?’
She looked out over the windswept valley. There wasn’t a hint of colour yet, but with a determined press to her temple she kicked down the prosthetic until the low power mode flashed and she couldn’t understand the battery numbers anymore. A drift of mauve crept across the valley, almost tentative. Behind it, bluer shades tangled between the frames of abandoned, picked clean homes.
As she pressed again the battery indicator flashed one more time, a deep red beneath the meaningless jumble of status indicators.
Above the valley, webbed from peak to peak, from line-of-sight booster to line-of-sight booster, the gentle green net of data that tied the last Australians together faded into view.
‘Can you see it?’ Reeshard asked, his voice hushed.
‘Yes,’ she managed, and pressed her temple one final time. The indicator blipped out and the web above solidified, as the valley melted into pastel shifts that sang in her ears, an orchestral sigh, a breath of life.
A golden jangle of cymbals and hollow wooden blocks crashed over her from Reeshard’s direction. A question?
She saw the wind pick up fractionally, heard the trickle as it bled capillaries of colour across her vision and the pastel landscape of the hidden valley. In the distance a dark swathe unfurled. Chaffwind. Offlined sentry bots.
It was safe passage out and into the Bush, a safe path through the cacophony of storms and through a wider world that was desperate to reconnect to itself.
She raised a single hand and pointed gently at the dark curl on the horizon. Reeshard cluttered something else at her in his cymbal crash voice and she felt gentle hands guide her into the crystalline fracture of the cab, a smear of white and silver sharp painted across the blues and marvels of the storm. Network filaments clung to her hands as she was strapped in.
Onwards to an open nation, she tried to say, but there were no words in her world anymore, nothing that came out of her mouth but wind, storm and song.
The crystal cab hummed forward. Reeshard’s hand squeezed hers tightly, warmth cutting through the noise and colour into a pinprick of connection.
And words didn’t matter anymore.
About the Author:
Tom Dullemond is a Dutch/Australian humanoid who writes primarily short fiction across all genres, including literary fiction and the occasional poem. He contributes a regular science fiction column for the CSIRO’s Double Helix science magazine, and on the other side of the publishing mirror, reads and edits for Andromeda Spaceways magazine.
He also runs the writing management website Literarium.net.