From a Whisper to a Roar
Loneliness is a condition that's hard to understand unless you're in it. So is being human.
It was getting harder, as the nights lengthened and the air cooled, to hold in mind things still to do. October slowed and settled; the engine of the seasons ran down; the coming winter the absence of autumn as autumn had been the absence of summer. Spring was distant as the start of time, hopeless to imagine. I sat alone in the broken zoo at Regent's Park, London around me an empty cinema, my memories too weak to light its screen.
4 p.m., 5 p.m.... evening. I waited as usual for the plane, and there it was in the dark blue of the southern sky, distant lights, distant drone, slipping down its memory of the glide path to Heathrow. The great trees on the edge of the park had long shed their leaves; the automatic xenon of the aircraft's strobes sparking through empty branches on the way to earth. A clear night, I thought as I stared into the sky at the early stars left in the plane's wake. Frost later. Cold enough now. I stuck my hands in my jacket pockets, asked it for just a little more warmth up to my face. I hate a cold nose.
I walked down toward Baker Street and the hotel, wondering how alone I wanted to be. A quick check: a couple of hundred people within half an hour. Most on do not disturb, of course. A small group in Marylebone with the welcome mat out, but that was Sandra's lot. I'd rather go for a swim in raw sewage. They were probably trying to raise ghosts through television again, sitting around in a fug of dull, drugged bonhomie telling each other how special they were. No.
Further out, some friends. Some asleep, some working, but... no, no reason to make the journey. I would have to do a tour soon, I supposed, but there were weeks left yet. And if I didn't, I didn't.
And then a voice, warm as a West Country sun. "Roland? Orrrrrrlando? You around, or is that just your machine down there in Babylon?"
"Sally?" Sally. Out in Dagenham, the old football ground. No more information. But Sally was data enough. "Sally!"
"That's right. Hello, stranger. Didn't expect to see you, but there's a nice surprise."
"You're really here! When did you get back? What are you doing? Are you staying?"
There was a pause, and for a second or two I was alone again in the park, in the night. Which was, I found, more alone than I wanted to be, this evening.
"If you want to know more, you'll just have to come and visit. If you're free this evening. Don't want to mess up your social life."
"But what are you doing back here? I thought I'd seen the last of you."
"You never listen, do you?"
"Never listening, always apologizing. Coming? I haven't got all night!"
Dagenham was a long way away. Wouldn't make it before tomorrow. I wanted to see her... of course I wanted to see her.
She knew me. "You could drive out," she said. "Wouldn't take you more than half an hour. Go on, go and get a car and call me when you're on your way. OK?"
And that was that.
A car wasn't a problem. The roads behind Baker Street tube were full of them, carefully parked up, clustered around the dispatch point. Many of them were full of stuff. Relics. Notes. Photographs. Some had their windscreens painted in ornate scripts, letters glowing pale blue or green or, the horror, swirling, moving, day-glo rainbows. "From this point on July 5th, 2120, the family Graham slipped the surly bonds and joined the next life. We give thanks for this release, and we will see you among the stars." Not me, chums. Not you and your charming children, grinning at me from behind the glass. You're welcome to it. If I ever do join up, I'm taking my taste filters with me.
It took me ten minutes to find something suitable: a black Ford Fusion Bhopal, on the edge of the parking zone, clean and empty and not more than five years abandoned. I touched the door, said yes, I was prepared to register my ownership, waived my protection rights, agreed to recompense the last owner should they return. Ego te absolve, ego te absolve of your sins of insurance and possession. The car opened, I sat inside it, and we slipped away.
I'd forgotten how comfortable a car could be. It was a good model, this one; I turned out the windows and ran through the environmentals. Whoever the owner had been, he--no doubt of his gender--was no relative of the Grahams. There was no hint of his name, no personals, but the way he'd casually left his presets open to browsing... he was top dog, and he knew it. Smug, yes, but enthrallingly so.
The journey took close to an hour. I didn't know what was going on outside, but from the pauses, turns and occasional bursts of speed I doubted I wanted to get involved. And I was having a great time: I sat in the stalls of the Al'Dharbi opera watching "The Rape of New York;" I replayed the world finals of the last Scent Chess league from fifty years ago; I went flying over Berlin during the Volksschuld, and then during the last days of the second great war of the 20th. All those people.
And, finally, I got to the Park. The car apologized for not getting closer to the football ground, but the feeder road was overgrown. I checked: outside seemed safe enough, but I didn't know the area, not these days. I turned the windows back on, but I was under a canopy of trees, dark sky filtering through black pines, a star or two distant above.
Silence. Nothing. Oh, come on.
"Thanks for telling me you were on your way, Mr. Reliable. No, don't bother saying sorry. I'll take it as read."
"I... well, I'm here now. And it was a lovely drive, thanks."
"Yeah. Stay where you are, we'll come and get you. Five minutes."
And there she was, and a kiss on the cheek, that childhood touch of summer sun again, enough to lift a frozen season of nights.
We walked away from the car, years unwinding with each step. I had forgotten how small she was, how she smelled, how her eyes brought that serious face alive. She was in her winter suit, turned right down, the faintest purple glow outlining her shape against the darkness of the woods. "Not like you to be so... unflamboyant," I said.
"Doesn't pay to advertise around here. It's not a bad place, but you learn to keep yourself to yourself." She looked up at me and smiled. "Same everywhere, I suppose. You're good enough at it."
"Why are you here? Why didn't you say hello before?"
"I'll show you when we get in. We're about there anyway, I'm afraid you'll have to register to get in."
"Doesn't bother me. I did it for the car. Nobody plays those games these days."
She wrinkled her nose. "I wouldn't be so sure, you know. You're OK here, still. But there's always more going on than we'd like to think. Ah, here we are."
We'd reached a concrete wall in the forest, and a smooth metal door. I touched it, assented, stood back as Sally did the same. She pushed, and it swung open.
We were in a bright metal room. "Two seconds," said Sally, touching the clasp of her suit so it fell open. And there she was, soft in her microchain tunic, soft and glittering and a thousand reasons for being there all at once. "Flamboyant enough?"
"I hope you didn't get dressed up just for me," I said, hoping nothing of the sort.
"Silly," she said.
I unbuckled, a bit ashamed of my charcoal gray sloppy. She angled one brushstroke eyebrow, and we laughed. Easy as that.
And then the far end of the room opened as the building decided we were probably OK, all in all, and we walked through into the old stadium.
Which was a silent land of monsters. In the center, arcing into the sky, a metal pylon with spreading webs of wires, around and underneath it huge and unfamiliar machines. I couldn't see a roof; the sky above was still dark but the air down here was warm and the light was morning.
"Sally! This is... I don't know what it is. All your own work?
"Not really, there's someone over in old L.A. and a group of weirdniks across Asia. You up for a walk through the grounds, or do you want to eat, or what?"
I thought for a second, and rediscovered some lost appetites. But I knew a private viewing when I saw one.
"Show me this lot. It's been a quiet week for London's cultural life."
"Nothing to write about, huh?"
We wandered into the stadium, through severely geometric green and purple bushes at chest height, along a sparkling path that crunched underfoot. "Safety glass," she said. "We found tons of it out in Docklands, near the New City. Must've been there for years, all fallen out of the towers and heaped on the ground. You can't get near some of them for drifts of the stuff and nothing grows through it, of course. Shame to waste it."
I recognized some of the great metal boxes that rose out of the vegetation. "Menhirs?" I asked
"You're the only one..." she said, deadpan. "Er, well, sort of menhirs. Standing stones, I suppose. Not deliberate, but I liked it when it happened. I don't think it's deliberate. Whatever. Oh, this is our newest piece. Freshly arrived."
We stood in front of a golden cone, twenty feet tall, a foot wide at the top and thirty at the base. Convoluted slots, a finger wide, coiling and twisting, Mayan, covered the sides.
"That's the last of the comsats. Got it out of orbit last week."
"What's it like up there? I didn't know you could still go..."
"You can't. Well, you probably can, but that's serious work. But you can ask the belt, and if it's in a good mood it will deliver. This turned up in the garden, together with a note saying not to worry about the propellants."
"I thought all the big stuff had gone."
"Nearly all of them, used up when the belt got going. But if you go looking, you find all sorts up there. I don't know what the belt's thinking, but it seems to like history as much as we do. It even has a sense of humor. It knows that there's not a molecule of propellant left in this, and it knows we know."
Silence. In the distance, an electrical hum started, grew louder, cut out.
"What's that?" I asked
"Don't know. Something fixing itself."
We walked on through the formal garden, meandering past television transmitters, optical transceiver racks, network meshes. A gallery of a lost age.
"Is that it?" I asked. "The British Museum of the Empire of Technology?"
"Would I be that literal?" she asked. "There's no point in that. Why don't you ask it?"
So I did. A beacon, it said. Thanks for asking.
"When the city goes dark, you build a bonfire on the beach", Sally said. "And we're dark, now. Everything's gone. You want to know something, you think it. Tiny signals. The belt hears and answers. Tells you where you are, who's nearby, who's far away, sends your thoughts, sends theirs back. We're all reverting to apehood... no, beyond that. Sea creatures. Naked. Beyond tools."
"Those who are left..." I said. "People like us. We're not naked. I'm not ready to take off my clothes and leap back into the sea."
"You and me, we're the last. How many of us are there? Go on, ask." She stared up at the tower in the centre of the stadium.
I asked. Three million, said the belt. Three million, down from five last year. Come on in, the water's lovely. "Not many." I said. "But I'm not going anytime soon. I like it here."
Sally looked back at me. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Me too. But it's getting very lonely. Look, come over here. This is my favorite installation. It was the first. I found it, and it gave me the idea for all this."
We walked over to an anonymous piece of racking. Hundred years old? Something like that. Mostly electronic. Scientific, I guessed.
"It's part of Serendip NG, dear," she said. "The last serious attempt to find signals from space. Ran for twenty years all over the planet, with outriders in solar orbit." She reached out and touched the case. "This listened to the cosmos for two decades. We mapped the lot. Heard nothing. Twenty anomalies outstanding when we stopped bothering, but nothing you could do anything with."
"So there really is nobody out there?" I hadn't thought about that for years.
"How can we tell? We always thought civilization is radio. Once you learn how, you build transmitters and announce your presence to the listening hoards whether you want to or not. But look around you."
"Plenty of transmitters here. I've got one in my earring, one on my belt. There must have been thirty on that car I got here."
"Nothing impolite, though. We had a hundred years of television, radar, shouting our heads off. Now we know better. We whisper at each other, tiny clouds of radio just enough to get to their destinations and no further. All the big stuff's turned off, the frequencies dead. Beyond the belt, you'd never know anyone was home."
"And you're going to light the bonfire again?"
"That I am. All this stuff... just enough to recreate the noise of a bustling, shouting, mid-tech planet in the prime of life."
"What does the belt think of this?"
"It doesn't seem to mind. But I wonder what it knows; it's evasive if I ask. Oh, enough of the bloody belt. I'm having a grand opening next week, with a ceremonial throwing of the switch and quite possibly a ceremonial explosion of misconfigured equipment shortly afterward. Be nice if you could stay. Could use the publicity, and a firefighter."
It would be good, at that. "I'm hungry now," I said. "It's been a journey and a half, and noble, futile gestures always make me puckish."
She laughed. "As per usual. Come on, let me show you the Head of Broadcasting's office."
We walked off, under the spreading cables of the aerial, and back into the night at the edge.
And distant minds swept past, sifting space, finding noise, moving on.
Rupert Goodwins (RupertGo@aol.com) Ex-chief planner of the Tongan manned mission to Mars, international jewel thief and mild-mannered reporter, Rupert Goodwins writes about computers by day and behaves oddly at night. He lives in London, a large post-imperial city set in an alluvial clay bowl, but doesn't worry about it.
InterText stories written by Rupert Goodwins: "Little Acorn" (v6n4), "Fade Out, Mrs. Bewley" (v6n5), "Neon Sea Dreams" (v7n4), "The Year Before Sleep" (v8n1), "Amo, Mensa!" (v8n5), "From a Whisper to a Roar" (v10n3).
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 Rupert Goodwins.