Life is precious -- especially when you realize you haven't even begun to understand it.
The African savannah, tinder in the aftermath of the dry season. The watering hole, churned and muddy from pre-dawn visitors, who had also left their intermingled spoor all across the painstakingly tended lawns, contemptuous. Meri and I, taking tea on the terrace under the shade of her genetically altered palms, all awkwardness and shy exasperation.
Nine days to the end of the world.
Sighing, I drained my cup and leaned back in the cane chair to study her face. She was tanned now, of course, the lined leathery tan of the nomad, pale sun-dazzled eyes perpetually squinting. A little older, no wiser, and just as beautiful.
"Ghada," she said gently, smiling at me across the tea table, "you must have known I wouldn't go back with you."
I shrugged. In deference to the heat, I'd abandoned my normal unisex company overalls for a cotton dress and sandals, and I felt uncomfortable in them. Vulnerable.
Out beyond the low brushwood hedges, no more than bare twigs in this season and chewed raw by thirsty antelope, a pair of giraffes loped past, sparing the house and its bare stony grounds brief curious glances.
"You should get a proper fence," I said to break the silence.
Meri shrugged, undeceived. "They only injure themselves on it. They're not used to obstructions. Going 'round something just never occurs to them." She began fanning herself lazily with the Bubble brochure I had brought her. "Better just to let them have their way. It's their country, after all."
She smiled. "For a while."
Meri had come here just after the Fuel Wars, raw-nerved and perpetually tearful from years of nursing napalmed teenagers in military clinics, simply for a rest. And she'd never come home.
Things hadn't been right between us anyway. Nothing spectacular, even definable; just the slow listless drift that sets in when the first flush of passion dies and you discover your irreconcilable differences are all still there. I hadn't really expected her to come back to Saudi Arabia, to the medical service, or to me.
But then I hadn't expected her to build an estate in the middle of East Africa and live by painting sunsets for tourists, either.
"Look. Meri." I caught her gaze, held it. "You've seen the evidence. A couple of weeks, a month at most, and everything outside the Bubbles will be dead. I know you love it here. You appreciate your freedom. And I know you don't want to spend years cooped up in a glorified greenhouse with me--"
She smothered a weak laugh and looked up at the overhanging palms, vivid lime green in the peculiar afternoon light.
"But if you stay in the open, you're going to die."
I swallowed to ease my raw throat, wishing I'd left myself some tea, too embarrassed to pour more. Now that I'd said it, it didn't seem urgent, important, any more. As if just saying the words had made it better.
Or as if I'd at least done my duty.
The palms shivered apprehensively in a momentary flicker of wind. Meri slapped the brochure down on the table, and sat up, smoothing the front of her dress in an absent fashion. It reminded me of long afternoons in Tamrah, half-asleep on the big cool bed, listening to piped muzak from the open market and the thin mournful cries of children playing war games in the adjacent yards.
"Possibly." she conceded. "But possibly not. Come on. I have things to show you."
On the other side of the house, bolted to a wall peeling scabs of paint in the sun, she'd set up a miniature atmospheric monitoring station. Thrown together from government surplus and contamination monitors abandoned by unnamed feuding militias back when such things abruptly ceased to matter, it was a poor excuse for a scientific project, all improvisation and rust. I crouched to watch as she coaxed the monitors back into intermittent life.
"The thing is--"
The dials jerked and danced, stabilized. Sparks exploded from the solar panels on the veranda roof, and I squinted at the bone-dry turf where they'd fallen, waiting for potential a brush fire that, mercifully, never started.
"I don't think the official figures are accurate."
I bit back laughter. "And yours are? This thing is more accurate than government monitoring stations all over the world? Every scientist on the planet says the percentage of atmospheric oxygen is decreasing to a lethal level, but you disagree, and therefore--"
Meri raised tired, angry eyes to mine. "Not every scientist."
"Every competent scientist, then."
"That's nowhere near correct, Ghada, and you know it."
I leaned back on the wooden railing fencing the balcony, and sighed. "All right. There is disagreement, but the general consensus is we will all be far safer inside--"
Meri snorted. "And when it's time to come out? What then?"
"I don't understand."
"You're going to be breathing doctored air. Higher oxygen levels, lower pressure. Anyone born in those domes will find it hard work breathing real air. Perhaps impossible. And if you're in there a decade, two decades?" She shrugged expansively, reprimanding a thoughtless student. "Maybe no one will ever come out."
The heat made my head ache, and I was too tired to argue.
"So what is it, Meri?" I asked her, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice, only managing to sound petulant and childish. "You don't want to spend any more time with nasty old human beings? Feel safer in your own company? Or is it that... I mean, do you want to die?"
She glanced up suddenly, past me, hissed: "Hush. Turn 'round very slowly, or you'll frighten them."
Shifting my weight gradually on the creaking floorboards, I turned to look out across the lawns.
There were three of them, pale ethereal shapes: two upright, watching the other rolling among the grass, worming its shoulders into the turf like a boar at a mudhole. I wondered whether they found its behavior amusing or embarrassing, but their featureless humanoid torsos gave no clue.
I thought at first they were composed of flame, cold flame, white and sterile, but that wasn't right. That wasn't right at all. More like heat haze made solid. There, but not quite.
In some indefinable way, they reminded me of Meri.
"What the hell...?"
"They appeared once the oxygen level had started going down. The locals think they're ghosts, or demons, but who's to say?" Meri moved slowly past me, lifting her arms in a broad gesture, like a conductor calling the orchestra to readiness for the first note. "Whatever they are, they're beautiful."
The upright flame-creatures lifted their arms in perfect mimicry, and Meri laughed in childish delight.
"No." she said. "I don't want to die. I'm working on adapting a rebreather to gather additional oxygen from the air. And the house is sealed. I'll be all right."
Shivering into thin angular columns, the three creatures lifted slowly off the turf and began to ascend, swirling like luminous smoke, blending with the heat haze. Shielding my eyes, I followed them as high as I could, until the glare of the sun swallowed them completely.
"And I want to find out what these are. It's important. To me, anyway."
"I know," I lied. "I... really should go. I need to be back before dark, the roads..."
Inside the house, as I collected my sunhat and long gloves from among the trophies and cheap forged native artifacts, Meri touched my arm lightly, tenderly, looking at me as if for the first time. Her eyes were hollow and perfectly empty, drinking me in, and I suppressed a shudder at her mechanical come-to-bed smile. "Ghada, love... One last time?"
I shook my head. "I think... we're better leaving things as they are. Aren't we?"
She bowed her head.
I drove for over twenty miles, to be certain that she couldn't see me somehow across the empty plains and understand, before stopping the jeep and stumbling out into its limited shade to weep.
Blind to everything except my sense of loss, I'd pulled up perhaps a thousand yards from a deserted settlement, a cluster of whitewashed buildings baking in the afternoon sun. When the tears had passed, weak on shaky legs and embarrassed even out here alone, unready to face the few remaining hotel staff in this state, I left the jeep and strolled over to explore.
The town was three or four centuries old, and hadn't changed much since the first misguided Europeans traipsed in to claim it in the name of civilization. The clock tower in the central square, delicately carved in marble, was crumbling, the hands of the clock rusting steadily away, time destroying time. But the alleys of beaten earth were bare and clean still, and wandering about, lifting the sand-scoured shutters or curtains to stare into vacant dust-filled rooms, I half-expected to discover a gaggle of Victorian colonists 'round any corner.
Eventually I came across the courthouse, surrounded by ominous anthills, one wall neatly excised by energy beams, leaving a high open-fronted space exposed to the afternoon sun. And inside, the bodies.
There must have been at least a hundred dead, though jumbled together in the shadow of the courthouse roof, it was impossible to tell. All bones now, each skeleton still immaculately dressed in faded work clothes, corduroys and pop star T-shirts splashed with dried blood. Each skull bearing the mute testimony of a neat round bullet hole. Adults, children. Babies, bleached skulls shattered into fragments.
The Fuel Wars had cast their shadow here as well.
Backing off slowly, cautious, thinking of plague and booby-traps, I wondered if Meri knew. Surely not. She would have buried them; sorted the bones in her respectful, obsessive fashion and scraped out dozens of neat graves in the thick red earth. Driven here every day to water the flowers. Whatever else you said about Meri, she respected death.
I presume that was why the ghosts were appearing to her.
Trudging back toward the jeep, I looked back only once. In the slanting light of late afternoon, the flame-creatures were dancing nebulous obituaries over the bones, shifting hues in a mad outburst of psychedelia. I wondered if they resented my presence, or celebrated it.
As with Meri, I could no longer tell.
The sun was low on the endless horizon now, and the breeze was cool. A few antelope straggled past at a safe distance; others rose awkwardly from the dry grass to join the procession. I shuddered and checked the oxygen mask in the back of the jeep. Three tanks. Several weeks.
Well. I wasn't ready to go back to Meri, not yet. Maybe not ever. And I had no intention of staying here with the dead.
But the fuel tank was full, and the solar panels would kick in when it failed, and I had the best part of a month to possess the world that mankind was turning its back upon, perhaps forever.
Revving the engine, I turned the jeep east and headed off into the gathering night.
Ceri Jordan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer, theatre practicioner, and general rogue and vagabond. She lives in Wales and has published work in a number of U.K. and U.S. magazines. Her first novel is The Disaffected, (Tanjen Books, 1998).
InterText stories written by Ceri Jordan: "Handlers" (v5n6), "Making Movies" (v6n3), "Savannah" (v7n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Ceri Jordan.