A great machine wheels in the desolate sky, carrying Eamonn’s last hopes up to the heavens.
Heavy, cold raindrops hammered onto the parched ground. For a fraction of a second, the impact raised tiny clouds of dust but these were quickly slammed back into the earth and everything became a thick, smooth slurry of mud. It brought back faint memories of laughter, young eyes sparkling in summer sunlight. Skin slicked with water as the sprinklers flicked round and round until he turned the water off.
High above the desert’s barren surface, lightning crackled in plum coloured clouds. Flickers of light leaped from cloud to cloud like cavorting demons, their laughter crackling and rumbling through the air in predictable delay of their appearance. Something else moved within the clouds, hidden from view.
Every now and then, lightning would earth itself on one of the towering skeletons that jutted great metal ribs from the dry earth.
Eamonn watched the skies intently, glasses reflecting the brilliance of the lightning. His hair was quickly slicked flat against his skin, the water colouring it black in the gloom, and his clothes clung to his body. The tiny device in his hand blipped quietly, water drops passing through the projected holo-screens with nary a flicker. Green light gave shape to the shadows that crowded around him. Graphs and read-outs scrolled past in flashes of light, numbers unfurling into the void of computational space, but his eyes remained fixed ever upwards.
His brother, Herne, would have laughed to see him standing in the rain, chill water seeping into his bones. Skinny little Eamonn shivering and shaking like a leaf in a high wind, unused to nature, the outdoors. In the distance, shrouded by the clouds, hills the colour of nicotine stained teeth hunkered, barren and lifeless. Eamonn hunched, pulling his sodden white coat tighter around his shoulders as he thought of his poor, faded brother.
Holo-sun had given Herne’s skin a sallow complexion to match his brother’s that no amount of platitudes or vitamin supplements could lighten. Lines around his eyes cracking like the parched ground above the bunkers. Not that Eamonn had noticed, in the green glow of his computer screens.
A great metal bird wheeled high above him, the first thing to ride the air currents in centuries beside dust and the debris of lives dried and turned to ash. It was ugly, he was sure that was what Herne would have said of it. No bright colours, no feathers, just metal and plasma rattling and grinding against itself. But Eamonn loved it. He had given everything for it, this great, thundering machine swooping high above him.
Eamonn’s shivering grew more intense as the rain pelted down, staining his coat with splashes of mud and ash thrown up from the street. A puddle was growing beneath him. It reflected the dark, sucking void of the sky and the glowing light of his hand-held computer.
The rain felt as though it cut straight through him to the very marrow of his bones, burning like acid into the centre of his being. Eamonn checked his skin in trepidation, but there was only the faint flush of blood beneath his skin as his body struggled to warm his extremities. Not acid rain. No causticity. A miracle, all things considered.
He coughed, a wet, fleshy sound drowned out by the thunder.
It was a familiar sound; he didn’t need to hear it. It was etched into his brain, burned by seething resentment and frustration. And when those emotions had crusted over like fever scabs and the pus had been sucked away by a vacuum of loss, guilt had seeped in to fill the spaces left behind. Herne had been there, right up until he wasn’t.
Eamonn glanced down at his device. He had frozen himself, put his life and his grief on hold even as the sickness had crept up on him. It was as though Herne was with him from beyond the grave, his sun-sickness stretching sticky, black fingers through Eamonn’s body, through his mind. But Herne would never have done that. No. He had done it to himself.
They all had.
Custodians of the earth, but they had been forced to seal themselves below the ground when they had proven themselves insufficient. And still it wasn’t enough. Contaminated earth, poisoned water. Sickness and death, nature’s great levelling tools, sank fingers into their desperate burrows, even as the sun turned the surface to deserts. Mould, rot, water-logged prisons built just beneath the cracked skin of the earth, for all they were called sanctuaries.
Herne had nodded as though he understood when Eamonn had turned off the water as he played in the sun. Never complained when Eamonn scolded him for staying up late or tracking mud through the house. Stifled his hacking coughs with tissues when Eamonn demanded silence for his work. He had curled and crackled as they incinerated his body, too pressed for space to even give him an urn.
Blood speckled the tissue as Eamonn coughed.
Maybe his little brother had understood the precarious situation better than he had. Or perhaps he had simply taken joy where he could find it.
Eamonn saw no joy in the world as it was. The world he, and others like him, had helped shape.
When he had woken, too early and too late, his frozen bones had creaked and crackled, warning lights and read-outs telling a tale he had wept to hear. The plans had failed, and he was the last custodian. A last resort, never supposed to wake until the world was green and a cure was found. The tearing coughs that brought up chunks of flesh and thick, heavy mucus had echoed through the empty chambers as he had laboured, the gentle whirr of machinery reminding him every waking moment of the tiny, new lives held in stasis. Waiting. Dreaming of a world he had destroyed.
Another cough wracked his body, brought him to his knees.
The handheld dropped from his fingers and Eamonn scrabbled through the mud for it with shaking fingers. He thumbed the holo-screens, typing strings of commands into the portable console.
He pressed ‘run’.
Hydrological reformation initiated.
Terra reclamation initiated.
Buried under the dirt, below his feet, the readings indicated high levels of calcium. Iron. The soil would be alkaline when the storm passed; perfect for growing honeysuckle, iris and poppy. The numbers, peaks on a graph, were all that remained of skulls and bones long crushed to dust, but soon vines would adorn the bare skeletons of the buildings that loomed overhead. Broken, empty frames blasted clean by wind and time. Something beautiful would rise from the ashes.
Light glinted off metal high above him.
Human Effected Revitalisation and Naturalisation Effort.
The words were blazoned across the side of his storm-caller, the great wheeling bird riding high on the rising gale. Eamonn fell to his side, chest tightening as he spasmed. Air wasn’t entering his lungs, darkness was creeping in at the edges of his vision even as the clouds began to break apart. His fingers clutched a handful of dirt.
“The rest is up to you, Herne.”