Edition 14: The Tyranny of Distance by Sean Williams
Part of the Twinmaker series, this story follows Maudlin Tom, a father working through the loss of his son by following the journey his son had planned. What he discovers in a sleepy rural town lands him in the midst of danger and destruction, but Tom cannot turn away from those that could be saved. SY
For Jason Konstas, 1967-2014.
Maudlin Tom was seven kilometres out of Cowell when he learned of the crash. The Air was suddenly full of the news that some teenaged terrorist had marched into the headquarters of the global d-mat network and singlehandedly shut it down. It was all anyone could talk about, and with good reason, Tom supposed, although he himself hadn’t used d-mat for months now. Wholesale matter transmission had revolutionized transport, saved the environment and created a post-scarcity utopia unlike anything in human history. Without d-mat, the world literally ground to a halt.
“Bet you’re pleased,” a dozen or so people went out of their way to tell him. The simple sentiment was depressing on at least two levels. One, because he wasn’t pleased at all. And two, he wasn’t as popular as he had been when he’d left Sydney. Then, riding high in the public consciousness on a wave of either sympathy or notoriety—he could never tell the difference—it had seemed for a while as though people understood. And understanding was what he wanted, wasn’t it? It was hard to be sure, with his followers down to a few hundred, and of those only a dozen who were willing even to gloat.
Tom trudged on, wondering if Georgie would have been pleased. Probably, but who could be sure about that either? In the final days, he felt that he had hardly known his son at all.
At the first shady tree, he pulled over to check his fabber. Although he hoped and expected that the crash would be fixed soon—for the sake of all the people separated from friends and loved ones, for those requiring medical attention, for anyone needing to be rescued—it didn’t hurt to check that his own equipment was working, just in case he himself was going to need rescuing soon. The fabber worked fine: new reports explained that only the transfer of humans was affected by the crash; every other application of d-mat was still working. The sandwich he fabbed as a test was as fresh as the day it had been scanned. He ordered extra water and lingered in the shade longer than he normally allowed himself—to rehydrate, he told himself, but really it was to get used to the idea.
Georgie had dreamed of an end to d-mat. Had he lived to the same age as that teenager in New York, he might have actively plotted its downfall too. How would it feel to be the parent of a terrorist? Better or worse than being the parent of a boy hounded to death by his friends? Beyond a certain point he supposed there were no more degrees of grief or remorse. It was all black, indistinguishable to the human heart.
Maudlin Tom was what his followers called him, the crazy guy walking around Australia on a trip his son would never take. His real name was Thomas Modlin. One year earlier, he had found Georgie hanging from a noose in their back garden, dead. A year before that, Georgie had become an Abstainer, swearing off all forms of d-mat and fabrication. The technology was unnatural, Georgie said, even dangerous. Tom didn’t deny Georgie the right to believe whatever he wanted, even if it was possibly little more than teenage rebellion. Tom wasn’t an Abstainer himself. In fact, he worked for VIA, the body responsible for d-mat’s safe operation. Tom was proud of Georgie for sticking to his principles, however it had started. Life as an Abstainer was hard: it took real commitment to make and mend your own clothes, to grow and cook your own food, to wend your own way from place to place on foot or by vehicle. They’d had to move closer to school and put down a bore for water. There were complicated regimes for waste disposal and laundry. All in all, it was a pain in the arse, but admirable nonetheless.
The accident had changed everything. A crossed wire, a glitched code—no one had ever explained to Tom’s satisfaction what had happened. The end result was that two people died, the first deaths directly attributed to d-mat in a decade. The world didn’t quite know how to react. For a short time, transits went down as people waited to see if it was part of a larger, spreading problem. Then, when there was no follow-up accident, life went back to normal. Except for the grieving families, and for Georgie.
For a short time, Georgie had been proven right in all his fears. D-mat was a murderer. D-mat was dangerous. D-mat would be stopped if people could only see the truth of it. Well, here was his chance. The treacherous skin of the system had peeled back for a moment, revealing the horror beneath. People just needed to be reminded of it. People couldn’t be allowed to forget.
That was how Tom explained it to himself, afterwards. Why else would an otherwise compassionate and caring young man post a caption stating that the victims had brought it on themselves? That they were stupid, naive and reckless?
They deserved it, Georgie said.
That sentence was his undoing—a death sentence that was at the same time a cry for help and a fuck-you to the world.
Restored by the longer-than-usual stop, but by neither the world’s predicament nor his thoughts, Tom walked another five kilometres southwest along the Lincoln Highway, gently rising and falling with the land supporting the cracked tarmac. A soft sea breeze carried the sound of gulls and other birds. Flies too, but he was used to them. The air smelled of salt and ancient stone—and age, although he had yet to pin down exactly what gave it that flavour. This whole region had once been under an ocean, ground flat by the pressure of a long-vanished sea, and it showed. All around him, in the absence of mountains, valleys, cliffs, landscape, was evidence of geological time. Evidence of absence. The ghost of a world that wasn’t done mourning its youth. Tom liked it. It felt appropriate.
After an hour of global hysteria, he switched off his lenses and enjoyed the quiet. Panicking wasn’t going to fix anything. Hordes of talented engineers were already close to doing that, he was sure, although none were asking him for help. He was sure that all this talk of rioting and the breakdown of society was mainly nonsense. People weren’t like that, although they liked to imagine those around them were. Most people bent under pressure. Few broke.
Shortly before sunset, he came to a rise. There the road bent to the right and, at last, after so long following an unchanging course, his destination that week was within sight. Cowell was a small town still two kilometres distant, hugging the side of a large, shallow harbour. Between him and it was an inlet, over which the old Lincoln Highway arced in a graceful curve. Schiller Bridge was a bit tumbledown but looked like it would take the weight of Tom’s weary feet and the rubber wheels of his fabber. It only had to do so once. He was going the long way around.
Ordinarily he would’ve pressed on in hope of a proper bed for the night. People usually knew he was coming, some welcoming, others hostile. He had learned to weather both, just as he was now well familiar with weather of the usual kind. He had roughed it through heatwaves and tropical storms, through snow and funereal drought; he had roughed it through sympathy, hostility and indifference, too. It didn’t get easier, but it did become familiar, which he supposed was one of the outcomes he was aiming for.
This time, though, he hesitated. Fires belched columns of thick black smoke from the very heart of Cowell, smoke that he had seen before but thought nothing of. There were occasional scrub fires, even in this flat, arid land. They were usually left to burn themselves out unless they endangered people or property. Here, it was property itself that was burning—two large buildings on the main street, it looked like, with several neighbouring houses.
Tom fabbed a set of binoculars and raised them to his eyes.
The big buildings were definitely burning, and there was no sign of anyone putting them out, no evidence of Rescue and Repair anywhere in town. He couldn’t tell for sure, but there might have been bodies in the street, too.
Could there really have been riots at the fall of d-mat? Even here, in the middle of nowhere?
Maybe that made the difference, he thought. Being in the middle of nowhere was a serious problem when you couldn’t jump somewhere else at will.
He checked peacekeeper logs for activity in the area. The logs were laggy to the point of freezing, overwhelmed by requests. It took five minutes to get an answer, and by then he had already decided to go no further that day. He had moved off the road into the scrub, where he settled the fabber back on its three wheels and started the usual routine of making tent, sleeping bag, and memorial. He paced out a perimeter, checking for snakes and spiders. There were plenty of kangaroo droppings: he would expect visitors at dawn.
The peacekeeper logs, when they finally came through, showed that sixteen people in Cowell had called for help in the previous twenty-four hours, help that had never come. This, on the day d-mat broke down, wasn’t entirely surprising, but the lack of follow-up calls and drone footage were. Tom wondered if any of those sixteen people were now lying in the streets of their hometown, the victims of some ongoing catastrophe that Maudlin Tom might walk into tomorrow.
He checked his media feeds. D-mat still wasn’t working, but as expected there was little rioting anywhere. Cowell wasn’t one of the hot spots listed. The official reports from the town were of calm and lawfulness, which stood in stark contrast to the scene before him. The reports all came from one woman, a Koko Schulz, who was on the town council.
Tom bumped Koko Schulz and waited for a response. None came. He also submitted a brief report to the PKs, not really expecting it to be followed up any time soon. It wasn’t. By the time moonrise dimmed the splendour of the South Australian starscape, he was sick of wondering if he should go down there and help. The fires were still burning; he could see the flames licking at buildings further from the epicentre. It was either too late to do anything or too dangerous to attempt anything at night. That was the reasoning he put into the evening’s blog entry, “The Great Leveller”, to explain why he was being so cautious. You could walk for miles with the world spinning happily around you, he wrote, but all it took was one moment to bring it all crashing down. One breakdown, one mistake, one suicide. In the end you could do nothing. The equation was simple, but the mathematics behind it impossible for Tom to grasp.
He had suffered enough. Tomorrow might be a different story.
Georgie killed himself, but his friends drove him to it. Later, they were to express deep and, Tom felt, sincere regret, but at the time of the “they deserved it” post Georgie’s friends were merciless. They had been on uncertain terms with him already, since he had become an Abstainer. He couldn’t join them for most of the things they did. He couldn’t visit them at home. He was always far behind the latest fashions, which literally changed daily, thanks to fabbers: kids came home from school convinced brown was the new black, went to school the next day in hot pink. He couldn’t even eat the same foods or drink the same drinks as them, if they came out of a fabber. When he started telling them that they too deserved to die for using d-mat, it was only natural that they would retaliate.
Adults retaliated too, some directing their ire particularly at Tom. Couldn’t he keep his own kid in line? What kind of parent must he be to raise a monster like that? Was he a vicious Abstainer as well?
He had responded politely and firmly that his beliefs were his own business, and what happened in his family stayed in his family. That there were only father and son in the family made that last part much easier: Georgie’s mother and Tom’s parents had died years ago. There were no uncles, aunts, cousins or grandparents. It was the two of them against the world, and, increasingly it seemed, against each other too.
Although battle lines weren’t declared, the no man’s land between them grew wider and wider with every day. When Tom reached out, his efforts were pushed back. When he stayed silent, the silence only deepened. Tom got angry just once, the week before the end, and Georgie hadn’t yelled back. He hadn’t defended himself. His unresponsiveness had been the most terrifying thing of all. Tom couldn’t hurt Georgie; he couldn’t even reach him.
Looking back on the last week, Tom remembered feeling as though the house was full of an invisible, explosive gas that might light up at any moment. He had both feared and longed for the inevitable crisis. Change brought hope, he told himself, clutching at the smallest reassurance. Nothing, surely, could be worse than the helpless watching and waiting.
He was wrong.
Tom woke from a recurring dream at the sound of something huge crashing through the bush. The dream was of Georgie’s face as Tom found him in the garden that day. It hadn’t looked like Georgie at first—or maybe Tom’s mind had rejected the notion that it could possibly be his son hanging dead in that tree, that the crisis he had expected had taken the worst possible turn, that doing nothing had led to this as surely as tying the knot himself. He had failed his son—that was his first thought, upon accepting that Georgie really was dead. Only later did he realise that the blame deserved to be spread more widely.
Part of him would always remain trapped in that dream, even when the rest of him was shocked awake by thunderous footsteps that sounded like someone stamping right next to his head.
He scrambled to sit up, tangled in his sleeping bag, feeling as though he had slipped from one nightmare into another. A huge and dark shadow was coming closer, crushing bushes as it went. He glimpsed it as it passed through the campsite—a person, it seemed, but very large, impossibly large. There was a tinkling crunch as one giant foot came down on the memorial. The candle went out; metal bent; glass shattered. Tom’s anger overcame his fear and he shouted: “Hey!”
Too late. The giant had moved on. He heard it thudding and crashing into the distance and sagged back into the sleeping bag, wondering what he would’ve done had the giant actually noticed him. Stood his ground as it squashed him like a bug?
The footsteps abruptly ceased. Tom held his breath. The night was very quiet in the wake of the giant, apart from his breathing. As the seconds passed, he began to wonder if it had been real. Could he possibly have been dreaming? Was this how he imagined Georgie’s ghost, as some blundering monster failing even at revenge?
The darkness of the night belied that thought.
He stood up, legs still encased in the sleeping bag, and reached for his torch, flicked it on. He blinked for a moment before he could see anything.
The memorial was crushed, the candle in its heart extinguished. Georgie’s picture sat forlornly in the middle of a path of destruction that led from the scrub, across the campsite, and then back into the scrub. Near the wreckage in the red earth was the perfect impression of a giant, bare foot, easily five times longer than Tom’s.
Tom turned out the light and sat in flaring-red darkness. Shit, he thought. Now he knew what had caused the destruction in Cowell. But what was a prize giant doing out here, with him?
Natural night noises returned slowly: bugs singing, small things scurrying through leaf letter. No more footsteps. No sign of the prize giant. If it had been planning to kill him and missed somehow, the torch light hadn’t drawn its attention for a second attempt.
Tom wondered what it was doing, and decided he didn’t like not knowing the answer to that question.
He dressed quickly, zipping a windcheater right up to his throat. Should he pack up the campsite first? He dithered, wondering if he was delaying out of fear or pragmatism. The latter, he decided, as he had the previous night. Tom was a man who made up his mind slowly but stuck to his decisions until the end. In that, Georgie had been like him. No backing down, no retreating from the edge.
Tom woke up the fabber and fed everything into it for recycling, except for the ruined memorial, which he left exactly as it was, and the torch. When he was done he pushed the fabber out of the clearing and into some bushes and followed the footsteps into the scrub. Each giant pace equalled three of his. It took a surprisingly long time to reach the end of the trail.
The first thing he saw was a huge hand lying flat in the dirt, half curled into a fist. Its fingers were as thick as his wrists. Its knuckles were bloody. Tom trained the light carefully along the limb, wary of startling the monster awake. The arm was a thick branch connected to the broad trunk of its chest. Its head seemed small in comparison to the rest of the body. Spiky ginger hair matched almost delicate lashes on eyes that were thankfully firmly shut.
The giant’s breathing was ragged but regular. Its skin was splattered and streaked with blood, although a quick visual examination revealed no major injuries. It was wearing a tight blue body suit that left little to the imagination, but even so gender was hard to determine. Probably male, Tom decided. That would fit with the stories. He had never seen a prize giant before—they were illegal and always had been—but everyone who ever watched a contemporary drama knew what they were.
They were made in private networks, the stories said, to fight in secret tournaments. Rumours abounded of enormous bodies found dumped or chopped into pieces, because the fighter had died from complications before they could get back into a booth and return to their original form, the one they had been born with. Thus, according to the laws of such urban myths, were they punished for grasping too greedily at unnatural strength and power. No one outside the peacekeepers knew if any of this was true, but the yarns were compelling. And now Tom was staring at a prize giant with his own eyes.
What to do? He couldn’t leave it out here, where it could harm someone else if it woke up, or itself if it didn’t. Even resting, its body must be consuming energy at an enormous rate. How long until the person inside starved? Tom’s conscience was fine with waiting outside a burning town showing no signs of life, but he couldn’t walk away from this.
Retracing his steps back to the fabber he ordered strong rope, self-burrowing stakes and a motion-detecting alarm system, which he carried back to the body in several trips. Securing the hands first, he did his best to pin the giant to the earth, feeling like someone from Lilliput as he worked, tying down Gulliver. When he had finished, he rigged the motion detector to blare an alarm should the giant so much as twitch. It hadn’t moved once in all the time he had worked.
Dawn was still two hours away when he packed up the fabber and set off for town.
The long walk had been one of Georgie’s ideas. Early on in his year of being an Abstainer, he had declared that when he finished school he was going to go around Australia on foot to promote the cause. If he could do it, anyone could; if anyone could, why d-mat at all? Walking wasn’t a chore, Georgie insisted: it was a way of seeing things. Ignoring for the moment what d-mat did to the body, flashing about the world from point to point robbed people of the joy to be found in the spaces between.
At the time Tom had thought the plan naive but harmless, and likely to come to nothing given the fickle nature of teen convictions. But he promised to support it, thinking it an improvement on mooching about the house doing nothing. It was certainly an improvement on activism. The Abstainers had a militant arm called WHOLE that was rumoured to be responsible for the occasional sabotage. The last thing Tom wanted was for Georgie to drift that way. Abstainers were considered anti-social outcasts, but that was a lot better than terrorist—the very same terrorists currently taking the blame for the crash.
Three months after Georgie died, Tom took up idea of the long walk for himself, as a way of informing people about the damage they do by ostracising people with divergent beliefs. So what if Abstainers didn’t use d-mat? That didn’t make them less worthy. Social isolation bred prejudice, and given how easy it was for most people to move around, the onus was on the mainstream to make sure odd ducks like Georgie weren’t forgotten or the target of wilful hate. D-mat brought the world together—that was the slogan, wasn’t it? Everywhere for everyone. Even those who didn’t believe in it should benefit from humanity’s golden age.
Noble ideals had quickly led to sore feet and a growing sense of the enormity of what he had undertaken, not just in terms of crossing such a vast distance on his own. The Australian coastline stretched for something like thirty-five thousand kilometres. And between, it turned out, looked pretty much like everywhere else, only much less interesting, on the whole. What exercise did give him was time to think. Sometimes too much time, but that was exactly what he needed. By the time he got back to where he started, he hoped, he would be ready to move on.
Most of the fires were out when he walked into Cowell. The old freeway led past some empty silos and an oval to the main road, which stabbed seawards to the left. Few people actually lived here, that was increasingly clear, although there was some tourism and trade to keep the town a going concern. Cowell was sitting practically on top of the world’s largest black jade deposit, and there was a small trade in sculpture hand crafted by local artisans then copied for dispersal around the world. Some were shipped by sea so they would remain forever unique. Tom thought it fitting that the only things modern society wouldn’t replace en masse were people and works of art.
Roofs had collapsed, consumed by the flames, leaving stone walls standing blackened and scorched. Sidewalks gleamed with broken glass. The smells of age and sea were replaced by those of smoke and something much worse.
When he found the first body, it belonged to a girl no more than ten, her midriff crushed into the tarmac. Thankfully she was lying face down. Tom didn’t think he could have borne to see her face.
The next was an elderly couple, their wounds grievous. Beside them lay a shotgun that had been tangled into a ball.
Tom walked more slowly from then on, trying to make no sound at all. Occasionally glass tinkled from the remaining fires, making him jump. A dog barked twice in the distance. Another howled. It didn’t sound like anyone was moving through the town, but he wasn’t taking any chances. Before packing up the fabber he had ordered a flare pistol, the closest thing to a long distance weapon he could get without some kind of license. He held it tightly in his right hand but kept his finger off the trigger, not wanting to shoot any survivors by accident.
Contributing to his nerves was the complete absence of drones. Tom couldn’t remember ever being in an urban environment without some kind of aerial observation in place. Ordinarily in a disaster zone like this the air would be full of whirring fans and relayed instructions from the PKs. Cowell’s silence was the surest sign that the town was completely dead, and had been for a while.
He found more bodies near the fire’s heart: an old Institute building that was now little more than rubble. Crushing was the most common injury, although some had been torn literally limb from limb. He only needed to check for a pulse once, and oddly it was that body that made him feel worst of all. There had been hope, just for a moment. The others he could safely ignore. This was the closest he had been to death since cutting Georgie down from the noose.
The Institute’s doors lay in the street, thrown from their hinges by a terrible force. There was a bloody handprint on one of them, as wide across as Tom’s forearm. He stood staring at it for a long moment, wondering if he should just keep walking. A very large part of him wanted to do just that, but how could he live with himself afterwards? How could he blog about it? If there was a chance of finding one person still alive, he couldn’t give up.
And there was one person left alive, he reminded himself: the prize giant currently out cold near his campsite. He couldn’t leave it to die in the scrub. He didn’t know what kind of fat stores such a body possessed, but he bet it wasn’t designed to live for long. Prize giant fighters would have to return to their own bodies eventually or die, and the private network that had created this body was probably down, along with the global network. Walking away would be the same as committing murder.
He sighed and rubbed flecks of soot from his eyes. Gawping at bodies was grisly business, but he had to keep going in the hope of finding someone apart from the giant. That might be the only way he would know how dangerous it was to wake it up.
Sunrise brought no respite to the carnage, but he did find two things of interest. The first was a large, flatbed truck with an electric engine and a small crane, possibly used to fetch chunks of jade from the mine. It was undamaged and started when he pushed the button. Tom had never driven but he was sure he could figure out how.
The second was another prize giant.
He found it not far from the shoreline, in the centre of a broad, cleared area that might once have been used for town gatherings or picnics. The ground was heavily scuffed and bloodied. There had been a fight of immense proportions here, that was for certain. The second prize giant had lost, its skull caved in with an ornamental statue that might once have looked like a fish, but was now a bloodied lump of masonry lying atop a mess of bone and brains that had long since ceased living.
The sleeping prize giant was presumably the victor, since Tom had seen no signs of a third.
He felt that he could put things together with some confidence now. Sleepy Cowell in the middle of nowhere had had a dark side. Under cover of secrecy—which included disabling the town’s fleet of drones and posting automated updates portraying an artificial sense of calm—illegal, monstrous prize giant fights were conducted in the Institute building. Such fights possibly sustained the small community against forces that had dispersed many like it since d-mat made the world available to all.
Tom knew exactly how Georgie would have felt of the arrangement, and for once he agreed. It was revolting, exploitative, and dangerous. That this particular fight had occurred on the same day as the global d-mat crash was also spectacularly bad luck, as afterwards there was no way to return the prize giants back to their ordinary forms, not for the average d-mat user. What went through the mind of someone trapped in a body that wasn’t their own—a body absorbing energy at a furious rate, designed to fight briefly but intensely, supercharged by hormones and the crowd? Was it so unlikely that one of the prize giants had undergone a psychotic break of some kind and turned his fury on the town?
The other tried to stop him.
The question was: which giant was which?
Tom wrote up a brief report while walking back to the electric truck, even though he knew the peacekeepers were still overworked. Until the crash was fixed, and possibly for days afterward, the PKs would be attending to more serious problems, like ensuring that Europe didn’t descend into savagery. That totally outclassed a few deaths in a small town like Cowell, particularly a town that had, arguably, brought its own troubles on itself.
He was surprised, then, when a call came while he was negotiating the truck past the last of the bodies.
“Thomas Modlin? Please answer.”
The bump came from a peacekeeper called PK Lazan. Tom accepted the chat request.
“We strongly urge you to leave the scene and resume your journey,” the PK said.
“If I leave, he’ll die.”
“Chances are he’s dead already. He’s been lying out there for hours now.”
“You’re probably right. But it won’t hurt to check. I have to go back for my fabber anyway.”
“What do you plan to do if he is alive?”
“Perhaps I’ll keep moving, like you suggest.” Tom didn’t think that was likely. Why bother with the truck, otherwise? “Perhaps I’ll bring him back to town and try to fix him up.”
“His body is unlikely to respond to conventional care,” said PK Lazan. “Besides, you aren’t a doctor.”
“All I need to do is find the booth that made him like this and reverse the process. I am a d-mat tech.”
“Such transformations are not legally sanctioned.”
“Even to save someone’s life?”
There was a long silence. Tom wondered if PK Lazan was consulting with his fellow peacekeepers.
“Obviously we can’t stop you,” PK Lazan finally said. “We can’t offer you material help, either. But this case has been escalated to ensure you will be addressed promptly, if needed. We strongly recommend that you fab a drone at the first opportunity.”
That last was good advice, and the knowledge that the PKs were paying attention was of some reassurance, too. When he was being chased down the main street by an enraged prize giant, it would be good to know his final moments would be recorded.
“You should also know this,” PK Lazan added. “There’s a house that shows a sporadic power draw far above anything you’d expect from a community of this size. The address is 30 Second Street. The booth you want might be there.”
“Thanks,” said Tom, mentally crossing his fingers that the fire didn’t spread that far before he could get there.
“Good luck, Thomas.”
PK Lazan ended the chat and Tom drove on, relishing the unfamiliar feel of wheels under him and the road gliding smoothly by. This was the fastest he had travelled for months. It was also the first time he had retraced his steps.
The prize giant was still alive, although he hadn’t moved an inch. The alarm hadn’t so much as whistled. A line of big, red ants stretched from a nearby nest to his right foot. Tom knew from personal experience how their bites hurt. If the giant was sleeping through such torture, it was likely safe to move him.
First, Tom fabbed water, a breakfast bar, and a drone, as PK Lazan had suggested. The whirring of the drone’s fans as it alighted and circled the area was a small return to normality that, after the awful things he had seen that morning and had planned for the rest of the day, helped settle his stomach.
When he had left Sydney eighty-nine days ago, he had been accompanied by a swarm of twenty drones. His blog had had thousands of regular readers. He had felt buoyed along by an invisible crowd, accompanying him with every step.
Interest had waned, though, as the sheer time it was going to take him to meet his goal became apparent. Budgeting for thirty kilometres a day, the journey would require over three years to complete. By the time he returned to his starting point, he would be fifty, and Georgie would have been twenty-one. It was as hard to imagine those landmarks as it was to imagine walking for that long, particularly since Georgie was never going to be twenty-one. He would always be just shy of eighteen. He would always be hanging from that tree.
Tom fabbed a heavy-duty cable and tied one end around the giant’s ankles. The other he attached to the truck’s crane. He extended the flatbed’s ramp as far as it would go, and unfastened the ties keeping the giant pinned to the earth. As a precaution, he looped an extra length of cable between the giant’s muscular wrists and back to a stake dug deep into the earth. He kept the motor of the truck running and the flare pistol close at hand, wishing the PKs had allowed him to fab something more powerful. They hadn’t offered, so he hadn’t asked.
With a loud whirr, the truck began retracting the cable. Slowly, agonisingly, Tom manoeuvred the prize giant up onto the track and tied him back down. Not once in the entire process did the giant move. The eyelids didn’t even flicker. By the time he finished, Tom was drenched with sweat and shaking from adrenaline. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the giant’s skin had turned a bright red from sunburn.
Tom paused to drink, knowing he wasn’t even halfway done. Going back into town wasn’t going to be pleasant. The bodies had been lying in the heat all day. He fabbed a potent-smelling muscle cream for smearing under his nose, packed the fabber into the cab of the truck, and set out with the unconscious giant back into town.
It was as bad as he had imagined. Birds were feasting on the remains and there was nothing he could do to stop them. Maybe later, when the prize giant situation was resolved, he would use the truck to collect the bodies and find somewhere respectful to put them. If he could bear it. A pall of death covered the town, thick and cloying.
The address PK Lazan had given him was an old warehouse with a driveway looping around the back. There was a locked roller door big enough for the truck to fit through. Tom fabbed a crowbar and pried it open. An alarm wailed. He found the control box and cut the cables. The wailing ceased with a squawk. The prize giant slept on.
At the back of the warehouse was a freighter booth. He tapped at the manual controls and managed to gain access to an interface that would work through his lenses. It would have looked perfectly innocuous to someone expecting the usual set-up, but half an hour’s patient digging soon gave Tom access to a hidden menu that had been used the previous night. There were protocols in there that he had never seen before. They had to be what he was seeking. All he had to was get the prize fighter into the booth and he was sure he could get it to work. Only the network had crashed, after all: booths operated just fine if they weren’t trying to send someone somewhere.
His back ached. Every muscle in his body yearned for the familiar plod-plod of his journey. Nevertheless, he still wasn’t done. He had to bring the prize giant inside and get him into the booth. The crane would be of little use, because he couldn’t get the truck any closer, and calling PK Lazan for help was going to accomplish nothing.
He spent an hour searching the Air for advice and eventually settled on a mechanical lifter designed for untrained operators, with the cheerful acronym HUP. Activating the freighter, he cycled it once to make sure it was operating correctly, then input the HUP’s pattern and waited for the booth to cycle. He hadn’t been this close to an operating booth since setting out on the walk, and it felt weird, like he could step into it and erase time as well as space, undoing everything he had accomplished so far. But what had he accomplished? He had put some distance behind him, but no distance at all between him and his grief.
Even if he could get in this booth and go home, even if the d-mat network was still working perfectly, even if any of the thousand things he had had considered in the last eighty-nine days, it wouldn’t change a thing. That was what it always came back to. Georgie would still be dead, no matter how far Tom walked.
The freighter reopened to reveal a broad, crablike machine folded neatly in the mirrored interior, newly fabbed from nothing, Tom accepted the patch HUP offered and used lens interface and gestures to walk it out into the warehouse. From there it was a relatively simple matter to free the prize giant and get it inside.
When HUP released its burden, Tom stepped forward to check for a pulse one last time. It was vanishingly faint and so slow as to be nonexistent.
“Okay, HUP,” he said. “You stay with me.”
Tom and the lifter backed away from the booth. He switched to the freighter’s interface and dove back into the secret hidden menu. The controls were bizarre; nothing was labelled clearly, as though to hide their true purpose from even a perceptive glance. Tom eventually worked out how to cycle the booth and access its freakishly large internal memory. The freighter, by a camouflaged series of links, was the single booth in a private network where Tom assumed the prize giants were made.
Tom selected that option and settled back to see what happened.
The sun set outside. He imagined feral foxes on the move, drawn by the bodies as the birds had been. With HUP’s help, he would definitely start clearing them later, in the hope that it might be easier in the dark. He had avoided the body of the dead girl, coming back into town. Seeing her again would be hard.
To distract himself, he drafted a quick blog entry, in case anyone was remotely interested in him and his problems. The Air was still full of the crash and its implications: many children had died; many more might yet die if they couldn’t get to hospitals in time. Rescue and Repair were rebuilding methods of transport that hadn’t been used for decades—helicopters and hovercraft, mainly, which didn’t need specialised roads or landing strips—in order to get to people in trouble. One particularly desperate scheme used a coordinated network of drones to fly a surgeon exactly where she was needed.
In a world of vast convenience and complex machine resources, Tom wrote, this highlighted how essential actual people were. Sometimes a teleoperated scalpel just wasn’t enough; sometimes talking over the Air was utterly insufficient. The touch of one person could make a difference. Losing that person could be devastating.
The freighter signalled Tom, pulling him out of his thoughts. Going back inside he started playing with the hidden menu some more. The pattern of the prize giant was now available to him, perfectly preserved in the freighter’s memories. He could examine its measurements to the tiniest fraction of a distance and inspect its innermost parts. The body sported multiple bones in each leg to carry the weight, and two spines for extra support as well as to provide a back-up nervous system in case of injury. Ramped up glands and internal organs suggested that it could heal faster, digest food more efficiently, and experience pain in different ways to a normal human body. It had three hearts and a thick skull to protect the brain—which was, incredibly, exactly the same size as normal. The size of the vocal chords suggested that its voice would be deep and resonant—a primal holler back to the days of Neanderthals.
Hidden in among the data was exactly what he needed: the complete and unaltered pattern of the body’s original inhabitant. All he had to do was swap the brain out of the prize giant and put it back where it belonged, then cycle the booth. He was no neurosurgeon and he knew nothing about the finely calibrated connections needed to ensure the slightly older brain would fit correctly into the original body. Luckily, the hidden menu appeared to handle that itself. He selected the option and once more let the machine do its work. Nearly over, he reassured himself, although the easy part was arguably behind him.
“People who say that this is the easy part have clearly never done it themselves.”
“I’ve never said that.”
“Men don’t count. Unless you’ve got a womb somewhere you’ve been keeping from me . . . ?”
The exchange came to him out of nowhere, from a memory he hadn’t thought of for a long time. Georgie hadn’t even been born yet. His mother, Ali, was seven months pregnant, and uncomfortable with it. They were filled with hope and anxiety regarding what the next few months might bring. Current medical advice was to avoid d-mat for the last month, which added extra complications when it came to where to live, leading up to the birth. Their original plans had collapsed, with Ali’s mother falling ill and needing care herself. The alternatives were either to arrange a trade with a friend who lived in the area or to relocate semi-permanently to the hospital’s neighbourhood. Both had advantages and disadvantages.
“All this because I can’t use d-mat,” Ali complained.
“Could be worse.”
“Sure could. I dated an Abstainer for a week, once. Imagine if that had worked out.”
Ali had been a vigorous user of d-mat, hopping wildly around the globe every available moment. Her goal had been to see as much as the world as possible, and she had enlisted Georgie in her quest before following her own mother to an early grave. After the funeral, Georgie the toddler had led Tom with great seriousness to their local booth and told him that if they waited long enough Ali would return. That’s what always happened, after all. Tom had found it very hard to tell him that the law forbade it from happening this time. Proposals to keep “last transit patterns” as back-ups in case of accidental death were defeated every year in the Consensus Court. That didn’t stop little children dreaming. (And even if the law ever passed, Tom reminded himself in the present, nothing would bring back an Abstainer.)
But that day, weeks before Georgie was born, Ali told Tom about her fling with an artist called Dylan Linwood who still railed against the system, years later. She followed his career, even though they had long since fallen out of touch.
“What did you see in him?” Tom asked her, more amused than threatened by the distant look in her eyes.
“I don’t know. Anger, resentment, loneliness . . . ?”
“Sounds absolutely captivating.”
“He was, for about a week. I’d certainly never met anyone like him before.”
“I’m struggling to imagine how your paths ever crossed.”
“Artist, remember?” Ali ran a gallery in Melbourne. “He wouldn’t let me exhibit his work because he wouldn’t allow anything to be shipped by d-mat. That made me curious. I think he loathed me, but when you’re young that can be attractive in its own way.” She put his hand on the miraculous curve of her stomach. “You don’t loathe me, do you, now I’m fat and crabby all the time?”
“Of course not,” he said. “As long as it’s not hereditary.”
She grinned and kissed him. “Bad luck if it is. Being a dad is forever, you know.”
The freighter hummed to itself for five minutes, about twice as long as an ordinary transfer. When it signalled its completion, Tom stood in front of the doors and waited for them to open. The data looked good, from what he could tell.
With a hiss, the doors slid apart. Within, unexpectedly, stood a teenage boy, about the same age and build as Georgie. The boy looked up at him, then past him, taking in the empty warehouse. He was wearing ordinary clothes: jeans, a t-shirt, sneakers. His hair was cut in a style that was on the fuzzy border between conservative and fashionable, with a lighter streak above one ear. No obvious piercings or tattoos. No jewellery.
“Who are you?” the boy said, with more than a hint of challenge in his voice. He was obviously surprised too. “What are you doing here?”
Tom wasn’t surprised that the boy didn’t know who he was. Not everyone was glued to the progress of the sad man circumnavigating Australia. When he gave the boy his name, he casually brought his hands forward so the flare gun was in plain view.
“Are you going to give me yours?” Tom asked.
“What? Oh, I’m Lou. Louis Flavel. Where’s Koko? This is her place.”
“Koko Schulz?” Tom remembered the name from the peacekeeper logs. The boy nodded. “Not here. What’s the last thing you remember, after the fight?”
Lou swallowed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m the person who brought you back,” Tom said, indicated the freighter. There could be no secrets between them. “The PKs know what’s been going on here, but they’re not here right now. Do you remember the crash?”
Warily, Lou stepped from the cage and looked around. Tom backed up until he was standing next to HUP. The lifter was on and ready to move if needed.
“I remember a light,” the boy said. “There was something flickering in the scrub. A candle. I was running . . . running away from . . . I don’t know what. Then the light went out and I fell down.” He shrugged. “That’s it.”
Tom didn’t explain about the memorial and his campsite. “What about before that?”
The boy looked away. “It’s really blurry.”
Words came in a sudden rush. “The fight wasn’t my idea. Josh set it up. It was supposed to be fun. We choreographed the moves, the plays, the dance. We knew who was going to win beforehand. But something happened when we came out of here. My head didn’t work right. Everything was . . . red.” He ran a hand across his temple. “Is Josh here? He can tell you.”
Josh, the other prize giant, was lying near the sea with his head caved in.
“Who was supposed to win the fight?” Tom asked him.
“Is that how you remember it going?”
“I don’t know. It’s blurry, as I said.”
Maybe the boy was faking. Maybe he was telling the truth. Maybe it didn’t matter either way because he was just a boy now, not a threat at all.
“Josh is dead,” Tom told Lou. “So’s everyone else. D-mat is down. You’re lucky I was here to bring you back. Are your parents here, too?”
“You should let them know . . .”
Tom stopped there, unexpectedly choked up. You should let your parents know that Maudlin Tom, who couldn’t save his own son, just saved yours. Tell them that. Make them care.
They’ll forgive you, if you let them.
“Are you all right?”
Tom nodded, wiping his eyes. “Come with me. You need to see this.”
Tom walked the boy through town, to where Josh’s body was stinking up the entire neighbourhood. Lou noisily vomited up whatever it was he had eaten before being scanned for the fight.
“Fuck,” he said, wiping his mouth. “I thought you were bullshitting me.”
“Do you remember why you did this?” Tom asked him.
Lou shook his head. “It’s like it wasn’t me. I wasn’t in control. The giant . . . I can’t explain. It was good for a while, but then it got real bad. That’s all I can say.”
Tom suspected Lou could say a lot more than that, but let him off the hook. There was no evidence to say who had done what, exactly, and no point pursuing accusations now. The town was dead. The fights were over. Lou had identified Koko Schulz’s body two blocks back.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Tom said, outlining his plans to clean up the bodies and bury them.
It took all night and most of the rest of the day to bury the dead. They barely talked as they worked, their labour as much internal as external. When the two of them were done, Lou crashed in a friend’s empty home, safe now the fires had burned themselves out. Tom was exhausted too, but he didn’t wake Lou to say farewell. Lou was a stranger. He had held Tom up enough already. The boy had fabbers to keep himself alive until d-mat started working again, however long that took, and his lenses to keep him occupied.
Tom’s fabber trailed him on its three rubber wheels as he took one last turn around the town. His plan was to travel for a couple of hours along the old Lincoln Highway to a dot on the map called Port Gibbon where no one lived anymore. There he would sleep and probably dream of Georgie’s dead face. The next morning he would wake up and resume journey. That was the full extent of his plans.
One day at a time. It was a simple philosophy. If he didn’t have to look forward too far, then he didn’t have to look back, either. Looking back hurt too much.
And soon Cowell would be behind him, too. He wished he had seen it in a better light. There was no disguising the bloodstains and the damage, but now the stink of death was gone he could see that it had once been a pretty place. With the drone bobbing along above him, Tom walked almost to the water’s edge, where the other prize giant had died, and made a new memorial to replace the one Lou had crushed. He placed it on the ground with a feeling of unburdening himself, but of what he couldn’t define. Grief, perhaps. Or relief. The candle fluttered in a freshening breeze. Tom didn’t wait to see if it would go out or burn on.
The sun was setting. He turned to face it and kept walking.
Sean Williams is a #1 New York Times-bestselling author with forty novels, ninety short stories, the odd odd poem, and even a sci-fi musical under his belt. He writes for adults, young adults and children, and enjoys the occasional franchise, too, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who. His work has won awards, debuted at #1 on the New York Times hardback bestseller list, and been translated into numerous languages. His latest series are Troubletwisters, co-written with Garth Nix, and Twinmaker.