The March Wind
By Davin Ireland
This story first appeared in Aeon Speculative Fiction #14
Vic Fenton clutched his ragged Puffa jacket tighter to his throat and leaned into the icy gale blowing down Troubadour Street. Up ahead, taxis whizzed along the empty boulevard in search of fares that had long since departed, the absent punters mourned only by the swooping, wind-driven colonies of gulls. Vic put his head down and watched flagstones disappear beneath his peeling shoes.
The Mash House was a squat, four-storey pile of seafront masonry the local council had condemned years previously due to the disruptive role it played in modern beachfront society. Masquerading as a back-packer hotel for most of the year, the building’s middle two floors were actually a brothel that made easy money exploiting the town’s surplus of economic migrants during the off-season. Vic had only secured a room there due to a much-rued promised to clean the stairs and reception area every Tuesday and Friday free of charge. Apparently, the whores had better things to do.
He slipped into the lobby, exchanged a curt nod with a little boy who sat in the corner leafing through the tattered remnants of a magazine. Possibly the last he’d ever see. The boy’s father was one of the regulars here. Vic mounted the stairs two at a time, didn’t stop till he gained the nominal sanctuary of the fourth floor.
Penny hadn’t moved in the time he’d been gone. She lay curled beneath the sheet like a human comma – a brief pause in the story of a relationship that was entering its final, dysfunctional chapter. You can’t stay with somebody just because you pity them. That was the last thing Eamon, the self-proclaimed playwright from across the hall, had said before catching the train back to Coventry and the false security of his loved ones. An astute observation from an otherwise ignorant prick. But Vic had loved Penny once, and he wasn’t going to abandon her on account of her failing mental health. He thought about that as he brewed tea beneath the big picture window in the kitchen.
Out beyond the rain-swept boulevard, the grey Atlantic hurled great, rhythmic plumes of surf onto the beach. Deluded joggers and harried dog-walkers appeared from time to time, distractedly picking their way through the kelp that decorated the sand below the tide line. Nobody sane was out in weather like this. That was fine with Vic. He often spent hours sitting alone on the balcony staring out to sea, completely submerged in thoughts he had trouble recalling even minutes later. People were an intrusion.
Back in the bedroom, he set the tea tray on the night-table next to the little three-bar heater he’d bought at a flea market the previous weekend. Penny’s breathing had grown markedly worse since the arrival of the cold snap, and he’d felt the need to make a gesture – even one they couldn’t afford. Ironically, the atmosphere in the flat had deteriorated appreciably since. We don’t have that kind of money, Penny had complained on more than one occasion, and it gives me a dry throat.
Wait a few more days, he’d told her, the benefits will justify the outlay.
They hadn’t so far. Penny still looked like shit, still slept like death, still bitched incessantly about the weather and the daily minutiae of life. Because she was scared. They all were. Vic glanced at the mute TV screen in the corner and shuddered. Best not to think about that right now.
“Pen, are you awake?”
When she failed to respond, he poured himself a cuppa and migrated to the window. He didn’t bother drawing the flimsy sheet he’d tacked to the wall above the curtain rail. The material was so thin it may as well not have been there. Besides, it served to dampen the red-and-white scream of the gigantic Coca-Cola billboard straddling the brown-field site next door. And nobody needs reminding of the way the world used to be, chimed a mischievous voice from the back of his mind. And the voice was right. Like lifestyle magazines and non-essential TV broadcasts, fizzy drinks were a thing of the past. Vic banished the thought, sipped tea, waited for something to happen.
It took him a moment to realize that something already was happening.
From this distance the man looked to be on the wrong side of fifty and was seriously overweight. Maintaining an uneasy alliance with his cyan Speedos, he mounted the rotting breakwater with some difficulty and paced awkwardly to the end, arms outstretched like a gymnast on a balance beam. Vic sipped more of his tea, a worm of discomfort burrowing into his guts. He knew what was coming. All the same, he felt no real compunction to act beyond pushing through the balcony doors and into the biting March wind.
The nameless man sat down, dangled his feet in the boiling surf like a swimmer at a lido testing the temperature of the water. Then a large wave slapped the breakwater, throwing up a diffuse cloud of spray. The man didn’t waste any time after that. Pinching his nose shut, he plunged beneath the surface only to emerge at a different spot a few seconds later. Portly or not, there was little wrong with his technique. He made admirable progress in the first five minutes, stroking swiftly and consistently out to sea before allowing the current to bear him away.
He was out of sight by the time Vic went back inside. Nobody else seemed to have noticed. Fully accustomed to the idea that he lived in a world where suicide had become an everyday fact of life, he returned his cup to the kitchen and changed out of his sodden clothes.
The nightly illuminations had proven trying enough under clear skies. Beneath a dense layer of storm clouds, the eerie displays felt like a threat. At first, Vic and Penny had stayed in together to watch the nightly spectacles unfold from the minimal comfort of the flat. But as time progressed and Pen’s judgement deteriorated, Vic had taken to slipping off alone to join the chanting masses gathered on the sand.
Tonight was no different.
With the boulevard lights extinguished, a huge bonfire raged before the retreating tide. Vic had left a flask of hot soup and a note beside the bed before exiting the building. The flames leapt higher as the sense of anticipation intensified. Teenagers tossed driftwood, old bits of siding, even a few discarded rubbish bags, onto the strengthening blaze. For now the shoreline inferno was its own reward. But it wouldn’t stay that way. Cults and all manner of insidious superstitious practices were sweeping the country like a pathogen, with several prominent politicians being abducted and murdered as a result. Vic couldn’t help wondering how long it would be before the terrified populace began burning its elected representatives at the stake. Not wanting to get too close, he leant against a wilting palm tree a hundred yards upwind and smoked a cigarette.
Ten after nine, according to his watch. The fun should be starting soon.
He watched in idle fascination as glowing streams of ash drifted skywards. Little knots of random acquaintances – sworn allies against the fear – chatted among themselves in anticipation. Dogs barked, the surf boomed. Then a cry rang out. A young woman standing on a disintegrating bollard pointed frantically out to sea, face chapped red from the searing cold. Or perhaps it was from excitement, it was difficult to tell. Whatever the cause, several dozen pairs of eyes swivelled in the same direction at once. Vic knew they wouldn’t see much. The cloud cover of morning had cleared up somewhat, but not enough to allow the blue plasma glow of the previous night to shine through. Every now and again, however, the moon did peep from its hiding place among the gathered cumulus, and at such moments nebulous blue washes of light tinted its stony countenance.
It was the first sign.
Vic drew smoke deep into his lungs, flicked his cigarette into the gutter. Before the spent butt reached the ground, several million flecks of greenish light rained silently down from the heavens. They descended upon the ocean en masse, rapidly disappearing beneath the waves in much the same fashion. The crowd gasped as the shower became an avalanche – sucked in its breath as the avalanche mutated into twisting yellow fountains of light that skated randomly back and forth across the surface of the waters. The moist underbelly of cloud glowed erratically with coronas of reflected light. A range of equally baffling phenomena continued into the early hours, with purple and vermillion helixes dancing vibrantly onto the shore before collapsing into nothingness. It were as if the Aurora Borealis – or something quite like it – had migrated all the way from the Polar Regions to the Sussex coast. The few remaining spectators applauded their appreciation at the finale, as if this were a lavish municipal fireworks display. Vic snuffed out his last cigarette of the night and retreated into the shadows.
A letter was waiting for him when he returned: a vitriolic reply to the brief note he’d left earlier in the evening. Vic crumpled the paper and let it fall to the floor, where it landed beside the dead husk of Penny’s mobile. She’d be back when the last of the local dives shut for the night – sicker, angrier, more critical than ever. It was partly his own fault. He believed he’d subconsciously adopted the role of martyr at some point – the long-suffering spouse who collected their weekly rations, cleaned the flat without complaint and cared unflaggingly for his ailing wife. Obligation had taken the place of love in their relationship as easily as darkness follows dusk, and now he was paying the price.
Penny wasn’t stupid. She could sense the change in him and resented the implication like hell. Basically, Vic was telling her they had a marriage as long as there was an illness to fight. Hardly the best incentive for improving one’s health, he knew. And the worst part of it was, he kind of liked the arrangement. With the world changing in all sorts of sinister and beguiling ways, he needed time to adjust. And a bed-ridden partner who spent most of the day asleep provided just that.
Tired of having the same mental conversation with himself, he cradled the back of his head in his hands and lay back on the bed.
Ghostly dawn light permeated the room when Vic Fenton next opened his eyes. Was it morning already? Had he slept at all? The second question applied equally to Pen. The space beside him was empty, the flat itself deathly quiet. Only the plaintive cries of the gulls remained. He rolled from the bed, swept the tatty sheet from the window, found himself gripped by a sudden, intense gratitude that fresh air and bracing ocean vistas were still free – even to an unemployed arcade machine technician.
The balcony doors whined open. Vic took a single step forwards, then froze. Scented ocean mist pearled in from the Atlantic, partially obscuring the thirty or so silent figures in white Doomsday suits trawling the beach below. Some of those figures advanced in loose rows, employing instruments that resembled customized metal detectors to comb every available inch of shoreline. Others stood around looking perplexed and exhausted all at once – although how Vic could sense this when their features were concealed by full-face respirator masks, was a mystery.
He dared not breathe. The ubiquitous seafront taxis were absent this morning. A quick glance at the nearest intersection told him why. Road blocks straddled the boulevard at every junction, the Doomsday suits manning them armed with semi-automatic weapons. Something serious had happened. Vic came to an abrupt decision. A brief rooftop reconnaissance revealed the entrances to all buildings in the immediate area to be secured, but that wouldn’t stop him. Equipping himself with fresh clothes and cigarettes from the dresser drawer, he wriggled through a first-floor toilet window and dropped to the concrete apron that connected the Mash House to the car park. He had to find Penny.
The neighbouring brown-field site, with its monolithic Coke ad, provided the ideal cover. Soon Vic was racing down side-streets, checking abandoned bus-shelters, rifling through alleyway dumpsters. He didn’t expect to find what he was looking for, and was relieved when his instincts were proved correct. Penny got a bit vague if she neglected to take her meds, and she was quite capable of losing herself for hours at a time. Still, it’d be weeks before she descended into anything approaching genuine psychosis. No harm in being thorough.
He decided to retrace his steps and start again.
The Mash House was just ranging into view when a figure in funhouse white popped up from behind a parked car and jammed an assault rifle in his face. The masked soldier’s breath hissed like deodorant spray when he exhaled.
Sssssst. “Where d’you live, son?”
Sssssst. “Prove it.”
Vic dug through his wallet for an item of identification that bore his current address. He found nothing.
Sssssst. Sssssst. “Hurry it up.”
“I’ve only got my keys,” Vic explained. “Flat twelve, top floor of the Mash House. If you escort me, I’ll unlock the door for you.”
The soldier contemplated this for a moment. “No, that’s all right,” he said. “Just make sure you have some ID next time you venture out, yeah?”
Vic turned to go. Something held him back. “What’s going on here?” he asked. “Has there been an accident?”
The soldier gestured at the sky with the barrel of his semi-automatic. “Mid-air collision,” he confided, “around three this morning.”
“Between what and what?”
Sssssst. The soldier just looked at him.
“Come on,” Vic pleaded, “we’re all in the same boat, aren’t we?”
The soldier was starting to look agitated. “Two of our jet-fighters, one of their … craft,” he admitted. “We’ve recovered only debris so far, but there might be other stuff out there. Stuff we can use to defend ourselves. Now get going.”
“Thanks,” Vic told him, and jogged all the way home.
The room was still empty when he got in. It took a while to realize that Penny had been and gone in his absence. A second tersely-worded letter – shorter than the first but no less hostile – claimed she was hitchhiking back to her family in Hastings. Just like Eamon. Vic wasn’t overly concerned. Hollow threats were just her way. A quick examination of the wardrobe, however, told a very different story. Penny’s suitcase was gone, as were the majority of her clothes. Only a pair of denim shorts with a broken zipper remained.
So that was it. Vic discovered he was more relieved than disappointed. He spent the next couple of hours on the roof chatting to a Liberian prostitute known for her wild flights of fancy. Today she claimed to be an undercover customs agent burdened with co-ordinating the salvage operation. The two of them shared the remains of a spliff and a few lame jokes on the subject of the crash while a fleet of gleaming military trucks rolled through the deserted streets. Around noon, Vic began tiring of the conversation. He was hungry, too, and was about to take off when his eye fell on something lodged in the dirt of the adjacent brown-field site. The object was faintly ovular in shape, and appeared to have ploughed a long, wavering furrow in the mud upon impact. The portion of it protruding from the mound of debris glowed like a bronze discus. He must have walked right past it after squeezing through the toilet window.
He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
The unfamiliar object weighed heavily in his lap. One side of it was smooth and flat, the other convex and blistered with a rash of crescent-shaped glyphs and curious-looking dials. Vic rotated the thing in his hands, peered at a shape reminiscent of a three-legged Pi symbol. The symbol was slightly raised and seemed to be a button of some kind. Below it, a miniscule cluster of constantly changing characters flickered at the speed of milliseconds.
Milliseconds or thereabouts.
Was that the key? Was this thing marking time like a stopwatch? Possibly. But to what end? Vic dumped the object on the bed and wandered out to the balcony. Increasing numbers of soldiers patrolled the boulevard – grim phantoms in the receding mist. Beyond them, the sea was lightly scummed with a foam that seemed reluctant to disperse. Even from here, it was possible to make out hunks of broken fuselage churning in the surf. The remains of the collision were washing ashore.
He went back inside. Could it be that the thing lying on the bed was an alien black box? Now there was a thought. Or was it some kind of failsafe device? Most intriguing of all, since when had the enigmatic little machine been marking time? Since the collision? At some point prior to that? A chilling realization swept through him. Could the thing he was thinking actually be true? He dared not believe it.
A light rapping at the door interrupted his thoughts.
For some bizarre reason he found himself expecting to find Mr Tarquot – Mash House landlord and all-round fly-by-night – loitering at the threshold. Instead the face was familiar to him without being immediately identifiable.
Vic nodded. The man standing in the hallway shifted his weight uneasily from foot to foot, like a boxer about to enter the ring. A reversed baseball cap held his unkempt, shoulder-length hair in check. And he was panting, though no other signs of physical exertion were in evidence.
“How did you get here,” Vic wanted to know, “the town’s crawling with soldiers.”
“Hadn’t noticed.” The man made a concerted effort to get his breathing under control. “Got a visit from the cops about an hour ago,” he said. “The local constabulary reckon my address was in her purse when they found her.”
Vic swallowed. “Penny?”
“Was that her name?” The man seemed to think about it. “The pasty-lookin’ chick with the freckles, right?”
Vic just looked at him.
“Listen, man, I’m really sorry –”
The man became skittish, did a quick double-take. “Come again?”
“How did it happen? Penny.”
“Oh.” The man sounded almost disappointed. “The usual. Some drunk guy beat her up, pushed her off that high bridge over by the –”
Vic closed the door.
It was a very long time before he moved.
Perihelion Day, the following year.
The beach wasn’t as crowded as it had been earlier in the afternoon. The sun slid lazily down the western side of the sky, relinquishing none of its brightness. Families with children tiredly gathered up their belongings ahead of a last meal together, a last prayer, one final kiss goodnight. Some of them were weeping. The majority just looked shell-shocked. To the east, a second glassy ball of light grew ever fiercer in the summer sky. An asteroid. According to the experts, it was larger than the one that had wiped out the dinosaurs. Vic Fenton dangled his feet from the boulevard wall and watched the masses drift by. Sixteen months since Penny left. Sixteen months in which his own life had changed immeasurably, and for the better.
Ironic, really. The blazing sphere that would erase all life on earth was just eight hours from entering the planet’s atmosphere, and all of a sudden Vic Fenton had gotten his act together. What a joke. He barely thought about his days at the Mash House any more. A new relationship, a new apartment, a new job selling fresh fruit to the tourists. It was easy money and it was fun. More importantly, it had made him feel good about himself for the first time in years. City kids who’d never seen a fresh slice of melon before, or who only knew the taste of mango as an artificial flavouring in drinks, went wild for the real thing. And the sizzling temperatures meant tropical fruit successfully grew all across the British Isles.
Pity. Well, it didn’t matter anymore. He’d harvested the final row of pineapples the week before, and had given most of them away. Nothing to do now but enjoy the last sunset. That was okay with Vic. Shawna – his new love – would come looking for him soon. Her parents had driven down from Crawley once the sanctions had been lifted, and now they were spending their last day together in private. He’d join them later on. First he needed to do a little thinking – predominantly about the aftermath of that collision. Humanity’s tormentors, who had only toyed with Mankind from deep space until that point, had suddenly become belligerent, like spoilt children losing their tempers at playtime. No more light shows. No more unexplained phenomena or spontaneous TV transmissions. Just a big lump on a radar screen. That lump had turned out to be a moon-sized hunk of rock the off-world intruders had dislodged from the Kuiper Belt and propelled towards Earth at improbable speed.
And then they’d gone away.
Just like Penny.
Vic sighed and drew his only memento of that period from the satchel that lay beside him on the boulevard wall. He’d kept it hidden from Shawna all these months, only examining it when circumstances would allow. The indecipherable characters flickered along as mysteriously as ever.
Vic surveyed the rapidly emptying beach and found himself marvelling at the quirkiness of human nature. The end was mere hours away, yet many of the departing tourists still took their litter with them. Even the deckchair attendant was busy collecting his chairs. Why? He wouldn’t be needing them again. And the very beach the people were so determined to keep clean? It wouldn’t even exist beyond tonight.
None of it would.
Plagued by regret, Vic trailed his fingers over the surface of the mysterious device and wondered about its true purpose. What could he say about it for sure? Evidently, it had travelled further from the crash site than the rest of the debris, and was in better condition. Coincidence or deliberate manoeuvre? Had the device been jettisoned ahead of the impact? And if so, to what end? He placed his thumb on the three-legged Pi-sign. Only one way to find out.
The deckchair attendant was nearly done now. The sinking sun had just clipped the surface of the Atlantic, increasing the glare off the water. Vic exchanged a friendly nod with a passing jogger and watched the man’s departing heels kick up loose puffs of sand. Maybe people thought that if they continued with life as normal, they’d still wake up in the morning. Fat chance of that. Vic sucked in a breath and depressed the dial.
The attendant was still making a meal of collecting the deckchairs. Families continued to pack up their belongings. Vic clutched the useless hunk of hardware to his chest and willed it to do so. His prayers were wasted. He glanced again in the direction of the deckchair attendant and received a shock. For some unfathomable reason, the old man seemed to have changed his mind and was now shuffling backwards over the sand, restoring chairs to their former positions.
That was absurd.
Vic shielded his eyes from the fiery ball of the sun as it neared the surface of the Atlantic. No, wait – hadn’t the sun just clipped the ocean’s surface? Even as the question entered his mind, the jogger from a few moments before passed him by a second time – only now racing along in reverse. He didn’t seem to be looking where he was going, either. Balance all wrong, he raised his head at Vic instead of nodding, legs scissoring muscularly behind him. Vic experienced a moment of swiftly escalating disorientation. Now everyone, it seemed, was walking backwards over the sand – dumping their stuff, spreading out towels they’d previously folded, unpacking bags. Not only that, the waves were frantically scrolling away from the beach, like a video tape rewinding.
Vic looked down. The symbols on the dial had stopped flickering and had become a blur. And while he couldn’t be sure, he thought it was a pretty good bet that the blur was moving in the opposite direction. Time was reversing, presumably to a point sufficiently prior to the collision to prevent it from happening in the first place. Vic was already struggling not to hyperventilate when a passenger plane catapulted backwards across the sky, exhaust pipes greedily sucking up contrails that had evaporated hours before. The tide retreated, returned, retreated, returned – night exchanging places with day at dizzying speed. The device was delivering him back to Penny and one last chance at redemption. No more Shawna, no more Perihelion Day, no more end of the world.
Vic Fenton clutched a spill of pink carnations to the breast of his army surplus jacket and leaned into the freezing gale blowing down Troubadour Street. Up ahead, taxis whizzed up and down a boulevard lined with rows of ailing palm trees, their sickly fronds canvas-wrapped against a howling March wind that threatened to spill over into April.
Vic had messed up again. The collision and the events that followed it had failed to materialize the second time around, yet the memory of it all had remained. In practical terms, this meant that Vic’s precious and much hoped-for reconciliation had degenerated into a slanging match fuelled on the one hand by Penny’s knowledge that she had already died once, and on the other by Vic’s admission that he hadn’t tried to stop her leaving.
She was in Coventry now. With Eamon, of all people.
The light shows had stopped the week of her departure. The TV returned to broadcasting scheduled programs soon after, and now a young man by the name of Vic Fenton was vying for a date with a pretty oral hygienist who had turned him down on more than one occasion. That in itself was strange. Shawna retained just as many memories of their relationship as he did, yet they no longer meant anything to her. Stranger still was the attitude of her boss, an aggressively attractive redhead a decade Vic’s senior. She had hardly noticed the former arcade technician during their previous encounters in reception. Since the retreat from Perihelion Day, however, she seemed to be waiting for him every time he set foot in the practice. And what’s more, she made little effort to conceal her liking for him.
As Vic Fenton was soon to learn, turning back the clock gave everyone a second chance – just not always the chance they’d envisioned.
About the Author:
Davin Ireland recently returned to the south of England after spending three decades in the Dutch city of Utrecht. His fiction credits include stories published in over seventy print magazines, webzines and anthologies worldwide, including Aeon, Underworlds, The Horror Express, Zahir, Pseudopod, Rogue Worlds, Storyteller Magazine, and Something Wicked. You can visit his site at davinireland.com