My first published short story appeared in Empty Oaks in 2015, a publication that is now sadly defunct. You can download a PDF of the magazine Empty Oaks Issue 2 Winter 2015
Moment by moment
By Walter Balerno
Here I stand, Solace Bathgate, tall and gentle on the ice. In this bleak and suggestive space thousands of the dead hover beneath us in a crystalline pattern. The clarity of the ice and the winter sun combine to afford us this vertiginous view of the deep. A noise shoots through the ice. I turn to find Dan trembling at the sound.
“Dan. It’s frozen solid all the way to the bottom. You can’t fall in.” He’s an idiot. The others look on, unsurprised.
More than thirty years ago I would desperately try to avoid sharing the exact moment I woke up with millions of others by setting my alarm for odd times. One day it might be 6.34, the next 7.09. I didn’t want to be the same as everybody else. Now, here are thousands who chose to die together at the same time, sharing their grief in what I assume was an effort to transform it into something noble.
Yost, whose nose I admire for its mountainous profile, wonders out loud. “How did they distribute themselves at different depths? Did this entire body of water freeze at the same time?”
“Perhaps they had different degrees of buoyancy. Maybe they all floated but tied themselves at different depths with thin wires or strings we can’t see. Whatever it was, they made quite an effort to create this scene.”
A thin mist circulates a few centimetres above the ice, snaking around our ankles in the thankfully light wind. No doubt it accumulated due to the steep hills on each side of this frozen lake. The hills are covered with short dark green trees all the way to the top, the white sky flat behind. I am disturbed by the landscape although I see the beauty in it.
It is almost completely silent now. Even careful footsteps across the ice have ceased, all eyes searching below. People just like them forever suffering a fate they themselves fear.
“Let’s get moving again before our feet freeze.” I’m an unlikely leader but right now I know the mood has deteriorated and we need to change the scenery.
Thirty years ago my narcissistic clients talked incessantly about themselves and called it ‘information’. No. Information is when you see a small story on the internet about some weird microbe causing havoc with the ecosystem in Indonesia. Information is important.
Before long we learned that the microbe was just one in a chain of different microbes working like a production line. It was odd to discover these biological factories out of the blue, astonishing to find their DNA was different to anything else ever seen on our planet. The world was rocked not by the question of whether they were of alien origin or home grown artificial life forms, but by the realisation that these voracious microbes might change our world before we could do anything about it. Soon other miniature invaders were discovered smuggling their exobiology into our ecosystem.
It was all explained to us in serious tones by men in suits: “These hyper efficient organisms evolve faster than us and spread like wildfire so we have to adapt to the new environment rather than try to eliminate the invaders.” They planned to engineer the next humans but nothing could be done to ensure the rest of us remained viable in the new world.
It was with horror that I and billions of others realised our golden years were already behind us. We faced extinction. Life, viewed in its entirety, had become worthless. Now I see it like mathematical integration; if I stack every insignificant slice of time on top of the next I will make them amount to something.
Millions of others chose to make their own exit from this life. It started with bleak private moments but became infectious as stories spread. It was a movement, a comfort, and later a cult. Some made it an art form. Their last act a creative destruction like our brothers and sisters in the ice.
The new humans were issued and, although initially small in number, these children represented our future. But they were clever, strong and agile beyond their years and people who had just spawned normal children feared their progeny would become second class citizens. We remembered the fate of the poor Neanderthals.
But we are worse off, our genes incompatible with the new humans.
We’re heading south to warmer climes and from the top of the hill I can see the valley where we’ll pitch our tents tonight. The short trees with their bulbous little waxy leaves, their purple underside like heather from a distance, carpet the land in all directions broken only by the occasional yellow patch of the peppery and mildly psychedelic flowers we use as a garnish on our food. These are the moments of beauty I live for now.
The sincerity of their goodwill towards us was absolutely unquestioned. It came as such a shock to find they didn’t give a fuck. They lived amongst us, the poor, with no remorse. We couldn’t compete with them and we knew our fate already. Many of us chose to leave the cities and wander the land until our last days.
The new flora and fauna are amazingly nutritious so gathering food takes very little time. We occasionally cook meat on the fire but most of our diet is raw. All we need is shelter, warmth and company. We tell stories and look at the stars.
I don’t usually know what a story is really going to be about until I’m in the middle of it or maybe even the end. The inspiration is often just a random thought that I hope will transform into something along the way. This one started out as a science fiction story but it became a story about a group of outcasts wandering the world. A big story that turned into a small personal one.
The ugliest part of this story has already happened; the life the protagonist used to lead before the near extinction event. In other words, our world. The event itself is a forced transformation, or more accurately an exaggeration of the same world, and what remains is not drama but a glimpse of a possible future. It’s important that the outcasts don’t give in to the old system or the new but instead find their own way of living.