By Walter Balerno
She was the first human I had seen in over 40 years. As I crossed the road her face flashed into existence in front of me but was swiftly gone again, taking its silent shock with it. I tried to fix her image in my mind and remember every detail.
I liked her face. It had an air of intelligence. I don’t know why I thought that. She was getting old but looked healthy enough. The road behind her had looked the same as my road; grass and moss consuming ancient tarmac, turning a road into a lush river of green with scattered rusting hulks almost hidden along its banks. The buildings lining the street were the same weathered monoliths I had explored long ago. I couldn’t work out if she was visiting my world, if we shared a world, or if I had dipped into hers.
When my privacy mode malfunctioned long ago I assumed somebody would fix it but the technology, which was salvaged rather than created by us, was probably unfathomable. Once broken, nobody could fix it. People no longer popped in and out of my world.
Standing tired in the street, I didn’t know whether to remain there in case she appeared again. Maybe it was the first of several appearances as she cycled in and out of phase with my existence; tunnelling from one universe to another.
I wondered if she was standing waiting, just a few metres away, for me to appear. I cried and my chest shook. At that moment I heard a voice.
‘Can you hear me?’
The disembodied question arrived like part of some clichéd séance. A dog, far in the distance, barked. It was at the limit of my hearing and almost a phantom. I could make no reply.
‘My experiments are working. Don’t lose hope.’ Then there was a total silence like a radio being turned off after all programmes have finished so even the static disappears.
Days later I saw a man lying dead in the street, flickering so fast it was barely perceptible. A silver gun was still in his hand and blood had sprayed through the back of his head across the lush grass, pooling around him in the fractured concrete until dry. The low morning sun was bright and I had to shield my eyes to see the colours.
I bent down to touch the body. The boundary of skin and air fluttered on my finger like somebody blowing on it. His flickering cheek was disappointingly chill, more object than person. I wondered if he had hung on all these years and, not knowing salvation might be days away, had finally given up. I checked his wrist but his journal was dead. Nobody would ever know his story.
‘Such a shame.’ Her voice startled me. I looked round and thought I caught sight of her dress dissolving behind me.
Voices became a common feature of my world in the weeks that followed. At first there were many cries of ‘Hello?’ and ‘Can anybody hear me?’ that I never answered. Gradually the voices began to sound more like one half of a conversation.
‘Have you seen her recently? I hope she’s still working on it.’
‘Yes, but it was years before I finally got the hang of hunting them.’
‘All the children will have died, unable to survive alone, while the rest of us are beyond breeding age. This gap where no children were born will be the end of us.’
The chatter was endless and intrusive.
Objects began to appear in a roughly circular pattern not far from where I found the body. They didn’t flicker like the corpse but were nonetheless insubstantial and prone to disappear. I couldn’t predict whether or not the metal box lying on the concrete would still be there when I returned from my rabbit hunt.
As I strode along the path with a fresh rabbit in my bag there she was in front of me, enigmatic. Wondering if we could touch, I threw her the rabbit. She caught it, smiling as she disappeared still clutching it.
I heard her say ‘Come to the circle. I know you’ve seen it.’
Standing at what I guessed was the approximate centre, I watched figures appear on the perimeter of the circle. Their babbling voices were right beside me, their bodies distant.
She stood in a gap between the other figures with some sort of control box. Her face looked tight with concentration even from this distance.
‘Do you see people?’ She asked quietly.
‘Lots of them. In a circle around me.’ It was the first time I had spoken since the whole affair began.
The crowds looked around like blind people. I could tell they couldn’t see each other. They heard only disembodied voices but I could see them all.
She tweaked controls and the people all became more substantial, almost solid, until an elastic pop made her gasp and say ‘I’m losing him.’
‘Looks like another failure,’ came a comment from nowhere in particular.
I saw disappointment on their faces before they disappeared.
That was yesterday and I haven’t heard the voices since then. The world around me flickers like the corpse did. I was part of her experiment, just like he was. Her efforts sent us somewhere else. Somewhere worse. Whole buildings and tracts of land spontaneously fade to something little more than air, the spacious separation of atoms suddenly believable. The strobing land affording me a swimmer’s glimpse of the deep floor frighteningly far below. Only my clothes and hunting rifle remain solid. I hope the rifle still works.
# ENDS #