Aphelion Issue 272, Volume 26
May 2022
 
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When All the Whales Are Dead

by Kilmo




The scout dismounting from his bike had the pale empty face of a mourner at a funeral and eyes that were hidden behind needle-sharp teeth. The Moray Eel had been long dead when he’d found it, one amongst thousands now the oceans had vanished, but sometimes it still felt like the closest thing to life the zone still possessed. Spook knelt, spreading his fingers wide, as he ignored the rattle from the spent shell casings dangling from his clothes.

“Twenty, maybe thirty.” He wrinkled his face at the bitter kick of gun powder and cheap methamphetamine as he took a hit from his stash. As his pupils began to vibrate Spook put his ear to the road and followed the motorcycles headlights where they cut through the gloom. He couldn’t remember when he’d last laid down to rest. Sleep came with too many nightmares now to enter it willingly. “Waiting… not far… around a half klick.”

The road’s ice flecked asphalt vanished somewhere ahead and Spook waited for lightning to stalk the horizon as thunder rumbled through the poisoned clouds. Since impact day when the coast’s towns and cities had burned like kindling and the pack had chased the vanishing sea until the wind drowned the screams in their ears the only thing that grew anymore was ash, and winter.

“Survivors bring tithe?” said Copper Hat interrupting his thoughts from where the leader sat astride the best bike the pack possessed. In different times Spook would have found the man’s voice funny: all slant eyes, and way of the warrior. But the blast wave travelling from the Mid Atlantic Ridge had meant the end of the old world and its bigotries. Even the spine of a continent hadn’t been enough to stop the planet’s revenge as its thinnest point cracked like an egg. When he’d woken in the ruins of the bar he’d chosen to die in, amazed to still be breathing, he’d known he was little more than a ghost whose life had been lost with all the others. Later, in the lee of what had been an ocean trench, half mad with cold and hunger Spook had heard their voices for the first time.

 He shook his head.

“Not much.”

“You sure about that? What do they say?”

 Copper Hat was suspicious as usual, but the figure in the faded grey dive suit studded with valves like the side of a compressor chamber had learnt to rely on Spook’s predictions.

 “Yes.” Spook paused listening to the whispers only he could hear. There was something else the survivors had brought: bright, and metallic, an artifact that had no voice of its own if he was any judge. “Got a new toy with them as well. Same as the others the factories produced, but better,” said Spook carefully. “Some of them are armed.”

 “That so?” Their leader was looking at the storm like he could see through its pollution. “Think they’re brave. Only one thing makes them like that.”

 As he returned his gaze to earth the glass in his faceplate glinted malevolently. Copper Hat had been closer to the impact point than anyone Spook knew, but he’d paid a price for his survival. The figure on the bike slumped like an old man left permanently staring at his feet and he moved like a cripple, stiff backed, and painful. Whatever was left of his face after the sky had rained fire killing the population in droves he kept concealed behind his helmet - his suit covered the rest. But it was his mind that made him top dog: sharp, and pitiless. He’d been the first prepared to do what even the pack’s most starving members wouldn’t till he showed them how little choice they had.

 Spook turned to the chief with a cold smile as breeze stirred the wind-picked totems hanging from his bike. At least he wasn’t hungry these days.

 “What shall we do? Pack’s impatient.”

“I want to know who’s backing them,” said Copper Hat. “You ask your friends, yes?”

“Yes boss.”                      

 There was silence for a moment as Spook let the world around him still, and soon his eyes shone white, and blank as marble.

 “Survivors think if they buy us off another time, they can keep what rolls off the lines and make a deal with the orbitals.” He nodded heavenwards. Somewhere up there was sky, and beyond that cool clear void scattered with earth’s wealthier refugees. “Odds are we’re walking into a trap.”

 Copper Hat let out a guttural laugh full of the strangled sound of damaged muscle, and slowly mimed cutting someone’s throat.

 “They don’t hand machine over we kill.” He didn’t wait for a reply as he turned and shouted at the others, “Start your motors.”

 Spook grinned as the bikes fired up. He liked engines; the knock and roar of them calmed the lost souls that worked their way into his head. That’s why he helped the pack, that, and the leader let him keep the leftovers from their hunting now even mould had stopped growing. Spook stroked a jawbone and crooned into the wind keening across the old Maritime Zone. So long as he didn’t concentrate too hard, he wouldn’t have to listen to another desperate confused voice.

 “We ride,” barked Copper Hat before looking at Spook. “Where?”

 “Power station, boss.”

 The concrete tidal barrage was amongst the last things still standing from before the fall, although its turbines served no purpose now. The seas had emptied while the ruins drowned in madness and the people starved. Only Copper Hat had lived from beyond the shore; marooned at his station until he could walk to a land where the irradiated farms were as dead as their inhabitants. It hadn’t been long before he’d taken over and fed his followers the sort of lies that made them even madder than the lack of light.

 Copper Hat’s voice interrupted Spook’s thoughts.

 “When we meet citizens? Let me do talking. I control power round here.”

 Spook nodded. Copper Hat was welcome. What was left of the cities had a millisieverts count so high it made his skin crawl, and its automated plants were deadly. It was far safer to steer clear. Only the collection of cylinders, tubes, and stainless-steel igloos underground had escaped the taint. He’d almost been sorry to hook them out of the darkness with the beam of his torch. If Copper Hat was right about the bio reactors and they could get them started maybe they really could get the skies to empty once more. The people living in their tin cans beyond where the atmosphere gave out had to help them then.

 “Move road dirt,” howled Copper Hat and pebbles sprayed off Spook’s bike as the pack accelerated. When the other riders had vanished into the gloom, he watched their leader out of the corner of his eyes. The man had an air about him like he was about to say something momentous.

 “Will be soon now,” said Copper Hat. “If they sent another must think problem fixed.”

 There was an odd look on Spook’s face as he answered like it was too thin to keep the hope pressing against it in.

 “You mean they’ve solved it? They can make the pollution disappear?”

 “Maybe not all the way, not yet, or they’d be down here already. But my old employers make progress beyond that.” Copper Hat nodded at the black clouds scudding by overhead. “I like you Spook. When it begins you pick right side. They don’t rule down here. I do.”

Copper Hat’s head swivelled back, the glass in the faceplate like the bottom of a well.

******

 “Not harm. Not yet.”

 Spook had to shout to be heard over the noise of engine’s revving as the first riders reached the small crowd below the barrier’s towers. The survivors looked even more pitiful than usual, huddled in the middle of the cracked earth sucking at their feet now the sea had gone.

 He drew to a halt and waited to see if any would run. Most of the little group looked dead already, but they often found life when they discovered what the pack wore. Spook had seen what happened then, and how far they got before their hides joined the others.

Copper Hat dismounted, his leaden soles sending up fountains of black dust like he was landing on the moon. He beckoned.

 “You give us what we want, or fight.”

 Their headman was from one of the old coastal defence units with a badge slung round his neck like a sheriff from a movie. Copper Hat let them keep the bauble: the faces above it changed so often it was the only way of keeping track.

 Spook watched the man’s fingers twitch. He was sweating despite the cold. As the growl of the rest of the pack’s engines filled the air his eyes slid to the barrier and the riders appearing on its crest. When they came back he was staring down the barrels of the pack’s guns.

 “You ask for too much. If we can’t trade, we’ll starve,” said the maintenance worker.

 “Starve then, we take from dead bodies as well as live ones.”

 “Then who’ll feed you next week? Next month? Next year?”

 “Who’d you think? You breed like rabbits. Let see bounty now, or we take children.”

 The man blanched and kept his eyes off Copper Hat like he was afraid of what would be reflected in that glass faceplate as his companions stepped aside. The gifts were feeble: a blanket laid out with weapons so old they might as well have been bow and arrows, a service droid that shook and juddered like a steam engine, even one or two of the living looked they were having difficulty standing. Only the engine parts and the orb hovering a short way from the crowd were different, their gleaming mirror smooth surfaces like memories of the before time come to life.

 “You… the Artificial. Come here.” Copper Hat’s voice sounded like sand at the blast sites where the grains were fused smooth as glass. For a long moment he watched the machine. Then Copper Hat shook his head.

 “Production’s still working?”

 “Affirmative, sir.” Pyramids spiked and rose across the orb creating waves of mountain ranges that disappeared in seconds. “But I’m the last. Hardware has now deteriorated beyond manageable levels.”

 “Then we take you to your job.” Copper Hat raised his arm, “Spook? You do honours.”

 The pack surged as the leader’s arm fell and began to fight each other for the best offering.

Spook gunned his engine.

“You? Come with me.”

At first, he thought the Artificial hadn’t heard. Then there was a click and its voice slid through the air sounding suddenly far more human.

“Subject will confirm allegiance.”

“What’d you mean?”

“You’re a category two adept. It’s a miracle you aren’t amongst the dead, or insane.”

“They don’t harm me.”

“The living will. Now, can we interest you in alternative employment?”

 Spook frowned.

 “Work for Copper Hat.”

 “You still don’t understand. There’s evidence of his complicity. It’s why they sent him to the deep down where he couldn’t be a problem. Are you going to let the world that comes after be controlled by the likes of him?

 Spook watched the Artificial for a moment. Even the dead couldn’t help him now. They’d never been able to read automatons no matter who was at the other end.

 “What do I get?”

 “You get to live, Spook. How long do you think you’re going to last without us on your side? But you’ll be well rewarded.”

 A thought crawled from the back of his mind. “Copper Hat kill me if he finds out I’m listening to you. Maybe worse.”

 Ripples danced over the sphere and Spook watched his reflection fracture and distort.

 “You aren’t listening to him though, are you Spook? You’re talking to this remote, and by extension: us. Your boss, Professor Guozhi? His former colleagues and remnants of the technorati? They’re gone. There was fighting a few years ago when the food began to run out. We’re in charge now. This remote will start the bioreactors, and it won’t let anything get in the way of that. But afterwards…”

 

******

“Why so quiet Spook? You look like man with lot on your mind.”

They were passing one of the old farms. Here and there the carcasses of animals could still be seen run aground in the dirt like bleached shipwrecks aflutter with scraps of rotten sail.

 “Not quiet. Just driving. Machine won’t shut up.”

 Spook gave the bag he’d used to muffle the machine a thump.

 “You remember what I said?” Copper Hat’s helmet swivelled toward the droid, “They deal with me.”

 “’Course boss,” answered Spook through the wind.

 “You’re lying,” Copper Hat was near enough to kick the bike to the ground, and Spook could feel his eyes watching him.

 He tightened his grip on the handlebars as his boss spoke again.

 “Been listening to Artificial too much. I tell. Used to send us all time out of ruins talking of fields, and seeds, and answers. All lies. Want to wipe us out. Start again.”

 Spook slid to a halt. When the dust settled, he could see Copper Hat had done the same.

 “Feel like taking my spot?” Copper Hat’s voice was low and dangerous.

 “No, I swear chief,” but Spook was finding it difficult to think past the chorus shouting in his head.

 “I know what’s on your mind Spook. You can’t hide from me,” Copper Hat sounded amused. “You follow till nobody notice nothing. Then leave. Got other concerns, haven’t you? Want to take Artificial to engine on your own. Use to start them without me. Make own deal.

 “Not without you chief. I’d never do that.”

 “Threat indicators show high probability of imminent violence,” came the Artificial’s voice loud and clear like it was reporting the weather. “You are advised to maintain distance.”

 “Quiet, you a robot, nothing more,” There was a tightness in Copper Hat’s voice as his head whipped round that Spook hadn’t heard before. But he could guess why it was there. What was left of the Maritime Zone was the chief’s turf. If he couldn’t control it, he wouldn’t last long. The pack did more than decorate their bikes with citizens.

 “Sir,” began the Artificial. “I am unable to comply. It will impair my purpose. If you have encountered others like me where are they now?”

 “Broken, useless, they were never going to start anything.”

 A sound was beginning to emanate from the Artificial like it was in pain.

 “I don’t believe you. Each generation was better than the last.”

 “Full of bad programming,” muttered Copper Hat, “Dangerous.”

 Spook didn’t understand what was going on, but his skin was itching like it wanted to jump off and run away. Soon the chief would lose his calm.

 “Your… creators,” continued the pack’s leader with distaste, “Left me. Bomb finish their world. Now, hide up there.” He pointed overhead. “This place belong to us now.”

 “Maybe so, but why haven’t you started the cultures?” said the Artificial. “You know how to. Things could go back to the way they were. Once the clouds are seeded, they’ll disappear and the sun will return, the oceans too. We could start trading.”

 “Why want that? I spent life taking orders from people with half my brains. Then they make mistake I warn them about,” snarled Copper Hat. He gestured at the tankers and distant spider legged stilts of long discarded oil rigs. “I telling you. We rule Zone now. Not them.”

 “You’re worried about what will happen after we restore the weather? Maybe they’ll find out who made the mistakes in the data that started it all?”

 The orb seemed to grow and the reflections in Copper Hat’s faceplate made him look even more strange and alien: like what was trapped inside was more insect than human.

******

 “What else can you do?”

 Deep underground, Spook could only faintly see the Artificial when it answered. This time all trace of subservience had vanished. There was a mind controlling it for sure, and it was used to power.

 “Plenty.”

 When the pack’s leader had made his move the Artificial had opened like a jigsaw puzzle in reverse, and segmented arms tipped with knives, a lot of knives, had emerged. Spook doubted Copper Hat had been expecting that before he died in a fountain of blood and gore. Once it was over, they’d left the mess in the dirt for the carrion eaters to find, and made for the bio reactors through one of the tunnels Spook knew.

 The Articial’s next words slid through the gloom.

 “I’ve been in contact with my superiors. The last download will have brought this device up to date.”

 “What about Spook? You kill me like the chief?”

 “If you interfere, yes.”

 “What if we’re followed?”

 “Don’t worry about that. I supplied the right co-ordinates. There won’t be anything left in the zone that can stop the reactors once they start.”

 The Artificial froze in place with an appreciative hum. Only part of the facility was visible. The rest spread back into the gloom, the hardware looking like one of the useless desalination plants on the coast.

 “We’re here.”

 “Yes.”

 The glittering spars reminded Spook of the skeleton of a whale made of metal.

 “Watch for me,” said the Artificial. “Somebody should see the beginning of the end.”

 Spook watched it glide across the floor’s polished surface.

 “What will happen to you?” he called after it.

 “My mission will have been completed. There will be no more need for this remote, so it will be shut down. I will be a power source only. But the Zone will have been restored. Why’d you care?”

 The Artificial’s manipulators stalked across the nearest reactor until a panel slid aside. With its attention distracted by its task it never saw the blow.

 “I don’t.”

 Spook dropped the wrench. The carapace around the impact had split to expose the microprocessor’s hidden beneath. It was like he’d said. The Artificial was much better work than their usual offerings.

 “Better this way,” said Spook as he cocked an ear and listened to the muttering in his head. “One less voice to listen to.”

 In his mind’s eye, children danced and laughed and he could see his friends in the world before, stretching back into infinity. So many countless happy moments.

 He smiled.

 “Anyway, need everything you’ve got.”

 He dragged the damaged Artificial round a corner through the dead husks of the previous units the orbitals had sent and flipped open a hatch. When he’d finished jacking it in, he waited as its power source began to drain. Soon Spook’s eyes grew wide with wonder. The bio reactors had begun to come to life. Their cables easing their way around the orb with a sound like snakes shedding their skins as they looked for more openings on its casing.

 Spook began to sing as fans shunted into life.

 “Make cultures hungry, make cells form, and sky return… please?”

 His vision blurred as the cavern’s dust choked corners began to fill with movement and the smell of ozone filled the air.

 “Let world feel produce.”

 Dust tumbled around Spook as he opened a storm shutter high above. Lightning was crawling across the sky as vents that had lain dormant for years began to spew the reactors contents into the sky. There were lights amongst the clouds now shining through the fissures growing amongst the smog, trajectories, and helixes, that had nothing to do with the stars and everything to do with the satellites high overhead. Soon the others crawling through the earth’s wastelands would see them too. Spook smiled as the gaps widened. They looked like the fires of an army up there, a great and glorious army.

 Half mad with hope, and prayers only he could hear, he began to whirl like a dervish letting his feet stamp faster than the bullets in his clothes. Maybe now the world’s slaughtered congregation would leave him alone.

 

THE END


2022 Kilmo

Bio: Kilmo writes. He brought it from squatting in Bristol, to a pub car park, to Dark Fire Magazine, CC&D Magazine, Feed Your Monster Magazine, Blood Moon Rising, Aphelion, The Wyrd, Sirens Call, and The Chamber Magazine. He also has a story published in the anthology One Hundred Voices entitled “Closest.”

E-mail: Kilmo

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