Minch didn’t want Over in his head but she rattled on. Last-Night’s eyes were closed in concentration.
Due to this and that financial and/or social consideration, when we arrived, the only ones there, were us.
And who are we?
We the lost generation.
We the foolish, hopeless, wandering refugees.
We the outcast and unclean.
We the new tribe.
We the dreamers. We the sure-footed on a new path. We who choose exile over spiritual poverty.
We the citizens.
We the summarily charged offenders.
We the biographically impaired.
We the trespassers, drug addicts, the undesirable.
We the unemployed and unemployable.
We broke away.
We changed the paradigm.
Into the night they fell like papers blown from broken office windows, smashed during the worst of the air-conditioning wars. Good air, blowing in the great sky, was not good enough for them. They were willing to trade skin, lungs, their right to open the window. To protect themselves from … what? Sunshine? Warm zephyrs? Sweat?
Falling, falling, hither and thither, forward and backward, sawing the breeze.
Was it flying?
Minch snatched the device from Last-Night’s hands and threw it, breaking the connection. The air was silent. It was about time. They never did anyone any good, the devices of the old tribe, and Over’s thoughts were powerful when she was on a roll.
Last-Night was quiet, poking at the device. Trying to reconnect, Minch guessed.
He stretched and looked up at the wide blue with its drifts of cloud. The old tribe hadn’t been able to crack the sky, though they’d tried. He let the sun find him through tree branches. The eucalypts here were stunted, like bent old men, but not old: damaged. The soil was toxic, not too deep. He wouldn’t stay here, would have left already if it wasn’t for Last-Night. There were no birds for a start, always a bad sign.
‘What does it matter?’ he said aloud.
Last-Night’s eyes were green. Piercing. Minch had never been able to resist them. ‘Only three Complexes survived the paradigm wars,’ she said. ‘And you shouldn’t have done that.’
Minch didn’t want Over in his head. He didn’t want to have to justify breaking the connection, either. Not to Last-Night.
‘So what?’ he said. He certainly did not want to go inside the Complex. He didn’t want even to be near it. It rose out of the grass with cold steel and reflective plastic, as stark as if the surrounding bushland did not exist. ‘We’re Naturals.’ He broke a dry twig. ‘If a bunch of Pedes want to rush off to become Shoppers, let them. Why is it my problem? Naturals belong outside.’
‘Over marked me, before she died. We’re Finders, Minch.’
‘And Tram’s a Keeper.’
Minch squinted, narrowing everything down to Last-Night’s face. She was beautiful, if not quite a Natural. Minch called her one. Wanted her to be one. But she was Impeded, just a bit, by the old paradigm. People assumed she was a Natural, but no-one had seen her naked since puberty, seen the withering, except Minch, and he wasn’t saying anything. But now he was annoyed. ‘Pedes have run off to be Shoppers before. No-one was stupid enough to go after them. Why now? Why Tram?’
Last-Night met his stare. Some Pedes were donors with built-in extras. Tram had parts Last-Night needed if she … But Minch wouldn’t understand. He couldn’t. He was a Natural. ‘Those others weren’t Keepers,’ she said. ‘Only Tram.’
‘Finders. Keepers. Over made it all up.’
Minch ran. That was the thing about Naturals: they ran fast. They were survivors. Last-Night watched him go, loping through the twisted forest. For miles around the Complex everything still looked a bit blasted, even after all this time.
Over had told them: the old tribe fled to the Shops for their last stand, before the Earth and its universe had sighed and heaved and the shift occurred. Before the new tribe had crawled from the ashes.
Fireside legends of luxuries beyond measure and mysterious promises of a life unimpeded drew a few Pedes to the Complexes every year, but no-one had ever returned.
Last-Night didn’t care. She was a Finder. And Tram was in there somewhere. Last-Night almost smiled, thinking of Tram’s hacked-off hair, cut with an old knife. Tram was obsessed with the old things, even the toxic ones.
She crossed her legs and leaned her shoulder to the largest of the tree trunks. Minch would be back.
He was in the branches when she woke. ‘I could’ve killed you,’ he said. ‘And then what?’
‘Then I’d be dead.’ Dead like Over, whose thoughts she could still connect to, sometimes. Less and less, Last-Night had to admit. But not to Minch.
Minch nodded to the Complex. ‘Going in there is as good as being dead.’
‘No-one knows what’s in there.’
‘Tram’s gone. You have to accept it.’
Last-Night flexed her shoulders. He saw the look in her eye and jumped. Minch moved fast, he was a Natural, but she caught him and dragged him by the hair to the ground. ‘I’m her Finder,’ she said. ‘Don’t say that again.’
‘Let me go.’
She let him go.
He couldn’t stay in wretched Carpark any longer and she wasn’t changing her mind. He loped towards the Complex. ‘If we’re doing it, let’s do it,’ he said.
Last-Night sent out a prayer to Over. Or a thought. She shook the device but its casing was cracked, the little window dark. Nothing. The connection was broken. ‘Wait,’ she called. ‘We should go in together.’
Minch laughed. ‘You think I’m going in there alone?’
The black glass plates met with nothing more than a seam, but would-be Shoppers had already jemmied them open once. Minch and Last-Night used an iron bar. The door gave less resistance than they had anticipated; they fumbled and the bar clanged to the floor, rang almost like a bell.
Inside, the air was old, stagnant. The light, diffused by panels in the distant walls, was dim. Not sun. Not outside. Minch shivered.
It took them a few moments to orient themselves to the flat planes and angles. Last-Night reached out to touch, but everything was further away than she imagined.
Minch laid a cautioning hand on her arm and froze. ‘They’re everywhere,’ he exhaled.
Last-Night stared, held her breath. So these were the old ones. The gods. She breathed out, she had to, but no-one moved.
Last-Night took a bold step forward. ‘Hola.’
Minch cursed. He should have kept that iron bar.
The old ones stared, but not at the intruders, into space, staring from their podiums out of their glass cages. Last-Night saw their unblinking eyes, flat on the surface of their faces.
‘Tram?’ she called.
Nothing but stillness and dust. Bones littered the polished floor, hard under Minch’s feet. Harder than the old road they used sometimes, but not often because Naturals generally avoided convenience, preferred to run on the good earth. Over and the other elders had interpreted the old texts and made it clear: convenience was the primary catalyst for global starvation, decline and war.
‘They’re all dead,’ said Minch, meaning the gods, but he meant the old tribe too, the skeletons at their feet huddled in a decrepit embrace, ringed by fallen skulls.
Last-Night agreed. ‘Rats and mice have eaten their clothes,’ she said.
Minch sidled up to one of the gods. ‘And their hair.’ He knocked on one. It rocked and he jumped back.
‘What are they?’ He sniffed. ‘Not wood.’
‘Not dead,’ said Last-Night.
Minch stared out to the dark recesses of the Complex. ‘Worse than dead,’ he said.
The undead gods were scattered through the caverns of the Complex. They got used to them, but Minch still cursed every time one loomed up out of the dark.
Rodents had turned much of the old stuff to rubbish, but there were plenty of marvels lying about. Last-Night picked up a china plate; tens of them and not a crack. Maybe this was heaven, for someone like Tram.
‘No plants,’ said Minch. ‘And nothing living. The rats came, they ate, and they went away.’
‘Maybe they died?’ Last-Night’s face was grim. ‘The old tribe loved poison. They put it in everything.’
Minch was sceptical. ‘Not everything.’
Last-Night gave him one of her stares. ‘Everything,’ she said. ‘Air, water, soil, plants, food, animals, everything. Even their own bodies.’ She looked around at the distorted human shapes of the old gods with their arrested dance moves and vacuous expressions. ‘Maybe this is what happened to them?’
‘They became solid poison?’
Last-Night shrugged a shoulder. ‘Maybe. Smell them.’
Minch agreed: the frozen gods did stink. Like something that had burned, but without the cleansing of fire; set like sap in the sun, but with no beauty. With no life at all. He felt cold and suddenly impatient. ‘Come on,’ he said.
‘Tram.’ Last-Night’s voice fell flat, as if she were shouting in fog.
‘Last-Night …’ Minch hated to ask, but Last-Night understood things. ‘Why no genitals?’
The longer they spent in the Complex, the less convinced Last-Night was about the gods. ‘They didn’t need them,’ she said. ‘Maybe.’
‘How did they …’
Last-Night shrugged. ‘Advertising,’ she said. ‘Catalogues. Maybe they were ways of replicating? Over said that’s how they spread their word; maybe they spread their seed that way, too.’
‘Can’t you ask her?’
Minch wasn’t used to Last-Night faltering, avoiding a question. She was one for searing him with her take-no-prisoners eyes.
‘What?’ he demanded.
‘You shouldn’t have broken the connection.’
Minch stopped, stiff. ‘You mean she’s just left us to die?’
He wanted her to reassure him, but Last-Night didn’t. She called out again, ‘Tram.’
Minch ran. He ran back the way they’d come, to the doors. He stopped, panting. Last-Night hadn’t followed, wasn’t there. He heard her call ‘Tram’ in the distance. He crouched, waiting. She wouldn’t go on without him.
‘Tram.’ Last-Night’s voice was further away. Or was it? Nothing was natural in the Complex. Minch cursed, picked up the iron bar and ran back through the gloom to find her.
When she felt Minch at her shoulder, Last-Night was so relieved, so grateful, she reached for him, drew him down and they huddled. ‘I’m glad you came back,’ she said.
‘I want to run,’ he said. ‘I want you to run with me.’
‘I’m her Finder, Minch.’
‘What about me? Aren’t I a Keeper?’
‘I’ll keep you,’ she said, into his neck, into his lips on hers. She pressed as much of her body against his as she could. She wanted him close. Inside her. He kissed her, letting go the weapon as they sank down, but then he drew away.
‘Sex is for outside,’ he said. ‘Not here with the bones. With these blank-eyed gods staring from the dark. We’re Naturals, Last-Night. We belong outside.’
‘Minch. I’m …’
‘Don’t say it,’ he said, and for once she obeyed.
Minch didn’t like the look of the stairs, didn’t like the ridged metal under his feet. This was the third set they’d climbed and the vast enclosed emptiness of the Complex, the stale air, wearied him. ‘What if it just goes on forever?’ he said. ‘And that’s why no-one ever comes out. You go in too far and there’s no way out.’
‘Minch.’ Last-Night halted, put her hand on his arm. ‘Smell that.’
He could. There was something alive up here.
‘Urine. From a Pede, for sure. And scat.’ His voice was barely louder than a breath. ‘But not death.’ Minch stared into the darkness. ‘Not yet.’
Last-Night shook the little device, tapped its blank screen. ‘Nothing,’ she said.
Minch didn’t say what he thought about Over. ‘We could still leave.’
Last-Night could hear his resignation; he wouldn’t go without her. She thought of Tram, heaving that ungainly body up hill and down, always cheerful. She’d shouldered an unfair amount of genetic fall-out, even for a Pede, but she never complained. Not Tram. She dreamed.
She’d introduced Last-Night to Over, to her knowledge of the old paradigm and the wisdom passed down from the elders of the new tribe. So it could never happen again. Over had understood the withering; why Last-Night must keep Tram until the right time. But Tram longed for things no Natural could abide.
‘I want a house,’ she’d say. ‘Roof. Walls. Inside. Pedes were made for inside.’
Last-Night didn’t want to find Tram in that stench. She could be dying in there, inside the deeper darkness ahead. What was it? Some kind of curtain, almost like fur to the touch. But not fur.
‘There are words stamped over the door,’ she said. Last-Night felt Minch’s tightness, his urge to flee. What if she took him in there and he never came out?
Minch rocked on the balls of his feet. He felt her waver, knew she’d turn back, now, if he asked her to. But Last-Night wouldn’t forget. Who could forget Tram, Minch thought. Tram and her big mouth. Tram and her crazy hair, her cracked teacup. He’d never lied to Last-Night: Tram drove him crazy.
‘I’ll go first,’ he said.
His heart quickened, but she wanted to stop and read the signs over the door.
‘Words impede,’ he said, and she felt the anger. ‘You think you understand Over, but you don’t. Words written down are ideas. Ideas create things. Things create longing. Longing creates malaise. Malaise creates capitulation. Capitulation creates laziness. Laziness creates …’
‘Convenience,’ she finished for him. ‘I know the creed.’ She took his face in her hands. ‘I chose you, Minch. I’m not capitulating. But Over is dead and maybe the words will help us. Help us find Tram and stay alive.’
He’d never seen her eyes like this: just plain loving him. He mirrored her gesture, his hands on her face and pulled her in.
They might die.
Minch stumbled away from the door, from the smell of suffering, pulling Last-Night into a little alcove, into the dark. He would pretend they were outside. And when they returned, Last-Night could read aloud and he would listen. He cried to think he might never again feel the sun, but Last-Night was kissing him, kissing him, and it was enough.
They couldn’t lie there forever. Tram might be dying and Minch wanted to run. Still, his step was lighter, Last-Night’s skin a little rosier; they no longer felt so sure they would die.
Not even at the curtained door.
Not even with its stink.
Minch pointed with the iron bar. ‘Can you read them?’ he said.
Last-Night sounded out the words above the door. ‘Virtual’, maybe. She’d heard the word. ‘Dimension’, no. ‘Theatre’, yes.
‘Something hums,’ said Minch, his ear to the wall.
‘Machines.’ Last-Night was thinking, Virtual, virtual – was it poison? Virus? ‘Sometimes they hum. The old tribe had ways to keep the power of the sun. If the storage-cells are deep enough underground and no rats have chewed the cables, they can still hum. People have been burnt by that humming, they say. Some poisoned. This must be one of the last ones.’
‘What do the words mean? Can they help?’
Last-Night sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She scratched.
‘Reading hasn’t helped, has it,’ Minch said. He couldn’t stop himself.
‘No. Let’s go in.’
They touched hands and went in together. With his other hand, Minch gripped the iron bar.
Tram loomed large on the screen. Tram, but not Tram. Tram as she might have been if she were a Natural, without the radiation and the degradation of her genes – genes designed for bodies with convenient, replaceable parts, genes with use-by-dates for turn-over, for profit.
Larger than life, Tram danced in a swirling garment that seemed lighter than air, on legs long and slender. It was Tram: her hair, the smiling curve of her irrepressible mouth, her eyes. In space, but not there. Hidden inside a moving picture. Minch slapped the screen, trying to reach her.
Last-Night examined her body. Poor Tram, poor Tram, lying in shit and piss, emaciated. The Pedes were slumped in their row of seats. At the aisle, Tram had slid to the floor. They’d left it too long. How could she and Minch have loved each other out there, in the dark, while Tram lay like this? How could they have wasted nearly a quarter-moon finding the courage to come inside? Last-Night’s hands ran over wires plugged into Tram’s flesh. Minch’s hands were there too, about to pull, but she said, ‘Wait.’
She worked on the words. One she knew immediately. One even Minch knew. ‘WARNING’. Panic made the others harder to understand. She sounded them slowly.
‘There’s a procedure,’ she said. Last-Night was crying, she couldn’t stop. ‘We can’t just unplug.’
‘What do we do?’
‘I don’t know.’ Tears trickled down her face like water over rock. ‘I can’t read. I can’t read it. I don’t know.’
When Over died, Last-Night’s tears followed her into the earth. But this was different. This tore Minch’s heart out. He put his fingers on the letters. ‘Straight up, like a bunya tree, then on an angle, like a downward branch then the whole thing doubled, facing itself. Tell me.’
Last-Night leaned into his shoulder. Her breathing slowed. She ran her hand down his arm and together they spelled out the shape.
‘Em,’ she said. She sounded the rest of the word and Minch listened. He couldn’t see it himself, but he listened.
‘Manufactured by VDT Industries,’ she read. It meant nothing.
‘Keep going,’ said Minch.
‘I think it means what to do,’ said Minch, excited. ‘Over gave us instructions for being Keepers, do you remember?’ He looked up. On screen the new Tram was dancing with a Natural. She was laughing. ‘Tram’s in love,’ he said.
Last-Night watched for a moment. The Natural spun Tram so she landed in his arms and he kissed her. There were others at their party – the rest of the dying Pedes, she guessed.
A sound came out of the body of the real Tram, an exhale of breath. A death rattle.
Last-Night worked on the rest of the words. There were buttons on the plug that had to be pushed in sequence and they needed water ready for Tram. ‘I’ll carry her out,’ Minch said. ‘I’ll run with her to the water.’
‘What about the others?’
Minch ran a glance over the Pedes. Some of them looked dead already. ‘Tram’s the Keeper, Last-Night. Over didn’t say anything about the others.’
Her voice was faint. ‘Yes.’
Last-Night studied the instructions and pressed each button. Minch saw her hands tremble, which frightened him as much as anything they’d seen. A whirring sound, a click and the prongs slid from the flesh, leaving a wound. The screen flickered. Tram ran from the dance floor and the Natural ran after her, pausing to tip his hat at the crowd.
The real Tram cried out. Her eyes lurched open. Minch gathered her up to run but Tram grabbed at Last-Night.
‘Put it back,’ Tram hissed. Then shouted, ‘Send me back.’
Last-Night recoiled from Tram’s breath, rotten like she had eaten death, and from the terror of her eyes. ‘You’ll die.’
Tram’s bony grip was strong. ‘Live!’ she shouted. ‘Live, live.’ She threw Last-Night off balance and struggled in Minch’s grip. Tram bit him. She screamed, foamed at the mouth and shook her head in agony, clawing to be free.
‘Let her go.’
Minch let her go, as gently as he could given the way she was thrashing around. He rubbed his arm.
Tram crawled away from them, back to the plug, and jammed it in below her ear. Blood trickled out to mix with the excrement. Minch saw other sores festering where she’d been lying. Even if they got her out, he didn’t know how they’d manage the infection. Pedes didn’t know how to heal. They’d bought new parts – skin, organs, cells. Once.
On screen, couples applauded as Tram and the Natural swept back into the room and across the dance floor.
Last-Night picked up the iron bar and tucked it under her arm. She crawled, following the cables from Tram, singing over and over: ‘Finders, keepers, losers, weepers.’ The cables led to a metal cupboard. Last-Night stood up and jemmied it open. ‘Finders –’ she sang.
‘You can’t,’ said Minch. ‘She’ll die.’
One of the Pedes wheezed and was silent; a dancer wheeled away, her partner following, tipping his hat to the crowd. The real Tram, shuddering, adjusted her buttons with a groping hand, then exhaled with a rattling sigh.
Minch saw Last-Night’s knuckles whiten around the bar. He glanced at the wreck of Tram, then up at the screen. The other Tram was tucked under her Natural’s arm, they were singing under the moon, or to it. ‘Tram’s in love,’ he said again.
Last-Night hurled the bar. It bounced off the screen and landed with muffled thud.
Tram, cheek to cheek with her Natural, looked down from a bridge at some kind of stars scattered over the earth, and smiled. It rained. The Natural opened an umbrella and they cuddled under it, and kissed.
Minch took Last-Night’s hand.
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