Rag and Bone

Rag and Bone

A Story by JR

The forty ton load lifter settled down on it’s bag with a terminal whine of the engine.  With a hiss, the driver-side door swung up and Tommy Eight stepped onto the deck.  His eyes squinted hard against the searing light, which reflected heliograph-like from the bald, tanned flesh of his head.  The red void of the sky swirled above him.  Tommy predicted an evening dust storm, coming in fast over the hard-scrabbled vastness of the West Desert.
    Crunch of broken glass as Tommy hopped down.  He looked back at the lifter.  It had seen better days; twenty years of winter had eaten rust pits into the supports above the skirt.  Still, it was a fuel cell machine, which meant it still worked.  Hydrogen.  About the only thing that still pumped out power these days.  So many other machines lay in dead scrap heaps along the side of the road.  
    Corroded hulks, squatting in empty dirt yards.  Motionless.  Bleak skeletons.
    Tommy consulted the map, one of the few he could find still printed on paper.  It was his third map in almost twenty years, and it was starting to go, fuzzy pulp rising from the creases where it had been folded.  The friction of folding had even eaten its steady way through the ten mil laminate.  
    Large sections on the map had been blocked out, crossed out with a succession of red X marks.  Tommy searched the house in front of him with the still calm of his blue eyes.  This was the last one, block 700 through 900 South, 1100 through 1300 East.  He added a careful red X through the entire block.  It didn’t really give him much satisfaction, but did invoke a mild sense of completion.
    Another block complete.  The vast array of squares and lines from the map, still unmarked, rose and threatened to overwhelm him.  Tommy shut down the futility before it could reach him.
    Under the late afternoon sun, the asphalt had gone the way of warm saltwater taffy.  Tommy had to be careful or his boots would get in that s**t.  Cleaning them was a pain in the a*s, and these boots were finally broken in.  
    The house itself seemed dead, a mass of crumbling brick and sun-bleached pine.  The windows had been broken; if it had been from the Event or something in the years since, Tommy had no way of knowing.  It didn’t matter one way or the other, but he still found himself chewing on the thought as he started walking across the orange dirt that had once been someone’s lawn.  The garage door was open, a yawning maw distorted through the heat waves rising from the stained concrete of the driveway.  The garage itself was empty.  
    Maybe the house would be, too.
    At the door, he spotted the blunt nozzles of the anti-intruder system, something that had become common before the Event sent everything sideways.  Before the power grid had gone tits up, those nozzles would have fired off if he tried to force his way through the steel-reinforced front door, bathing him in some sort of South American surplus nerve agent.
    Not much good now.  No power.  Tommy wasn’t worried.
    He used a low-tech reinforced breaker he’d lifted from the fire department to pop the door.  Even with twenty years of time and breakdown, the lock was a b***h.  It held out almost three minutes against the steadily increasing force of the breaker.
    When it did go, the door swung back hard, popping through the drywall.  A layer of dust rose from the carpet, separating the sudden rush of light into distinct bars.  Tommy’s shadow briefly cut through the sheets of light as he made his way through the doorway and into the monstrous silence of the house.
    He made his way across the carpet, as dried and mummified as anything else in the house.  It was next to the VR unit where he found the book, bound in cracked leather, the title in gold leaf the heat had flaked until it was unreadable.  Tommy gently lifted it, softly, and cradled it with his left hand.  With his right, he brushed the dust from the cover, accidentally knocking the remainder of the gold flakes off in the process.  The cover, at one time, must have been a fine thing, something that would have made the former owners hang on to it when printed books had become extinct.
    Tommy carried the book onto the entryway, where he could better look at it in the red-tinged light of the fading day.  He softly lifted the cover, squinting to read the title through the harsh burn of the light.
    “’The Sun Also Rises,’” he read, “by Ernest Hemingway.”
    He lifted his head and looked out to the desert, obscured by the haze and plume of dust, a swirling miasma before the dry shoreline of once had been the Great Salt Lake.  He sighed, a faint, brief sound swallowed by the silence of the broken city.
    Tommy swung the knapsack down off his shoulder and knelt on the warped boards.  He flipped open the flap of the bag and started to carefully slide the tattered book inside.
    Something fell from between the brittle pages.  Flash of plastic in the unrelenting sun.
    The book secure, Tommy reached down to retrieve the tiny plastic bag.  Inside was a clover, pressed dry against the smooth plastic coffin.  Tommy stared at it.  Such a small thing.  Someone had, once upon a time, picked the clover.  Maybe even from the front yard of the house, from the time before it had turned to a graveyard of dust and decay.  They’d placed it in the book to dry.  And, eventually, they’d taken the time to put the remains into the bag.  It made Tommy ache.
    He lifted the bag, pinched between his thumb and forefinger, up to the orange burn of the sun.  Green stained against the red of the sky.
    Tommy shook himself.  Night was coming, and the dust storm was building.  He didn’t want to be caught out in the open when the winds came screaming in.  Carefully, he slid the plastic bag into the front pocket of his work jeans, making sure the clover stayed flat.
    Tommy went back inside, immediately heading down the hallway to where the bedrooms were.  That’s where he usually found them. It’s as though instinct drove them there, to the dark places, bedrooms, where they pulled the shades and gave up.
    The woman was still wearing the tattered remains of what had been jeans.  The cotton of her top was so much dust above the shriveled, blackened leather that had been her skin.  Her hair had fallen out, a flash of gray-gold on the pillow beneath her.  Her eyes were closed, and she was pulled into the fetal position, her tendons swallowing themselves when the blood stopped moving.
    Tommy reached out and grasped the dry paper of the woman’s upper arm.  What once had been flesh became dust at his touch, flaking off and gently floating back to the bed.  Tommy had been expecting that.  What he hadn’t been expecting was the child’s corpse, blackened and mummified like it’s mother.  The baby was curled into the concavity of the woman’s stomach.  The fetal position, Tommy realized, wasn’t the result of death, but of some instinctual maneuver to protect the child.
    Protection.
    It had been hopeless.  There was no way to protect someone from something that killed unseen, something that surrounded every aspect of life.
    Tommy gathered the dried remains as he would a bundles of leaves, cradling them in his arms.  Then he made his way from the house, back to the load lifter.  With his foot, he kicked the release lever, and the gate whined down.
    The load bay was filled with the dead.  Arms akimbo, bones stitched in contrast the scraped metal inside of the bay.  Empty eyes and opened mouths, staring and lipless towards the glare of the light.  Tommy placed the last two of the day in the bay and brushed the flakes of their rotted, hardened flesh from the front of his t-shirt.  Another kick.  The gate whined up, closing off the dead in darkness again.

    They had called it a MIRV.  Multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle.  Something Russian, maybe, or Pakistani.  Terrorists, probably.  No one ever did figure out who’d sent it, or what had gone so completely wrong with the missile defense system that the MIRV had managed to get through.  
    Tommy had been in the Pit when the MIRV hit dirt.  He recalled it now, shifting the load lifter into higher gear and slamming the abandoned hulk of a Honda out of his way.
    The thunder when the multiple missiles hit had brought him up, the tremendous, bone thump of the Event.  He’d come out of the Pit and looked west, to see the receding flash and the rising column of smoke and dust.  The column that had folded in over itself, forming the characteristic form.  Nightmarish.
    A mushroom tattooed onto the emptiness of the desert…
    Not one hit the city directly, not Salt Lake, though Draper and a good portion of Sandy bought it.  In the flutter of news broadcasts, he’d pulled some facts, some legends.  Nothing above 10 megaton.  Huge amounts of fallout.  The one that had hit the West Desert was the worst…  It had been a ground burst, charging miles of dust and throwing it into the atmosphere, into the Salt Lake.  Exposure as high as ten grays as far as the Benches.
    They thought they had beaten it, though…
    Tommy killed the turbines and spun the lifter through a complicated turn, leaving the lifter’s gate at the edge of the massive pit that, at one time, had been East High School’s football field.  It had taken him three days with a fuel-cell conversion digger to make the pit big enough.
    Swinging through the hatch, Tommy hopped off the deck and made his way to the gate, triggering it to rise.  The metal on the outside of the bay was hot, so Tommy had to be careful climbing in.  He grabbed the woman from the last house of the day, still clinging to the remains of her child, and heaved her into the pit.  There were thousands there already, a tangled, silent mass, all angles and sightless eyes.
    After the Event, it had only taken days before they started to die.  Their hair and teeth fell out.  Some had suffered burns, days after the Event, red scars rising.  Things started to break down, then, as the resources of the city failed to keep up with the rising death toll.  Mass evacuation of the city, rolling numbers, heading into the mountains, or south, towards Mexico.  Police roaming the streets.  Lexan face shields, featureless, above the blunt snout of the riot shotguns.
    Again, they thought it was over.  The dying stopped.  Those that still breathed rejoiced that they’d beaten it.  It took almost three weeks before the dying began again, this time in earnest.  Whole households wiped out.  The police had given up the streets to the feral dogs, dust storms, and reckless looters.  They’d had dying on their hands.  No time for the niceties of society.
    Tommy pushed three more corpses into the pit, the last catching on the edge of loading bay, tumbling like so much firewood into the dark earth.
    That time, the second time, there’d been no mass evacuation.  People just stopped coming out.  They went to the ground, to dark places and rabbit holes, where they shuttered themselves in and prayed that the angel of death, the end result of the age of man, would pass them over.
    Those were the remains that Tommy gathered now, those who survived the first scourge, only to be caught up in the second, worse round of death.  Those who had no where to go, the forgotten, who went into themselves, finally, in the end.  Some had tried to find their places with God.  Tommy had found them in curled positions, praying.  Families had become arcane, forming hieroglyphics with their bones in the empty tomb of their living rooms or bedrooms.
    The loading gate whined back in position.  Tommy looked out over the massive field of the dead.  This was his fourth pit.  It was almost filled.  He would finish it up in three days, four at the outside.  A hundred dead a day, usually, sometimes more.  Then it would be the burning time.  Another funeral pyre for a humanity that had burned itself out.
    
    Three years after the Event, the girl had come into his life.  He’d run across her, down on State, wandering barefoot on the edge of a dust storm.  He’d pulled her into the lifter and held her while the red dust tore at the exposed metal.  She was young, probably thirteen or so.  Her eyes had a haunted look, recessed, two dark beams shining out from a very deep distance.
    He’d taken her to his house, dressed her, cleaned her up.  Her hair was short, curly, a sign of recovery from the sickness of the dust.  Her eyes were a very bright blue, like his own, eyes that had seen the death of her kind.  The implosion of her world.
    She didn’t speak, not that first night, nor any night after.  He wondered about the state of her mind, what had happened, how it came to pass that she was the last living being in a dead and forgotten city.  
    He named her Eve, but it wasn’t Biblical.  
    For five years she lived with him.  She never spoke, never named him, but she slept on the mattress in the corner bedroom.  He fed her from FEMA relief packets and what he’d managed to collect from the Mormon food storage areas.  He’d eat with her, to make her feel comfortable, and then would vomit it out after she’d gone to bed.  She helped him with his work, tirelessly lifting the bones of her kind, silently dumping them into the pits he dug.  She never questioned the work.  When he got up early, before the sun had really gotten a hold on the day, she was waiting by the door, looking up at him, her hair an uneven mass piled on the top of his head.
    At night, in the winter, when the dust would subside, he would catch her sitting on the porch, smoking his cigarettes, staring up at the stars, tracing mostly forgotten geometric patterns between them.  It was on those nights she’d hum snatches of songs she remembered, fragments, and he would stand beside her, silent, drinking in the beauty of her rare sounds.
    Often, while the load lifter was cranked up and humming down the streets, he would catch her looking out the window at the mountains.  A look of longing, pasted between the lines of her face.  Her eyes, a void.  
    She was gone one morning.  Just like that.  She’d taken nothing, not even food or the clothes he’d found for her.  On her pillow, she’d left a ring.  Something she’d worn every day, since he’d met her.  A thing of cheap gold and imitation stone.
    Gone.

    
    The dust storm had moved north now, flashed of heat lightening chasing along in the wake.  Tommy could hear it screaming and tearing at the box canyons and endless granite.  While it had moved around the house, probing the synthetic stone and pine, he’d sat in an old, comfortable chair and flicked on the light panel.  He read the first two chapters of Hemingway.  He placed the book carefully on the scratched oaken shelf, between a pristine copy of Gibson’s Neuromancer and three-quarters of the pages of the King James version of the Bible, and went outside to smoke.
    He watched the progression of the storm from a wooden rocker on his porch, smoking.  It was a habit he’d initially taken up to try and fit in with those around him, but it never had worked.  Every time he’d taken the G bounce into the Pit, he’d felt their eyes on him.  Joining the smoking circle during breaks hadn’t changed that one bit.  He was the ultimate outsider, something that mocked them simply by trying to appear as one of them.  They had known, viscerally, that he would never get cancer.  That he was risking nothing with his habit, unlike them.
    Now that they were gone, he smoked because he wanted to.  It was, for him, something of a pleasure, a bit of lingering humanity to grasp.
    They still lived.  Tommy was sure of that.  He’d seen their cooking fires at night, pinprick glows on the upper slopes of the Wasatch.  By now, their mutation rate would be leveling out.  In the higher altitudes, Tommy thought, they’d be reasonably sheltered from the dust and whatever it was that had been buried in the flats, west, beneath the salt flats.  The water was probably still pure.  There must still be game there, suffering through mutation at similar decreasing probability rates.
    There were people in other places, too.  Occasionally, when plugged into the Net, Tommy would catch faint signals.  Pirate satellite uplinks from Texas, insane religious rambling full of God and damnation.  Proto-punk out of San Francisco, full of bit-rot and digital static.
    Everything was still in place.  Running on automated fuel cells or nuclear fusion.  A bank of digital archive in the Pit.  Nitrogen-cooled servers humming in the blackness under the LDS Church office building downtown.  Bytes moving in packets, endlessly bounced along an invisible core of undying circuits and corded loops of subterranean wire.  The Net lived still, something that didn’t need man to run anymore.  After all, this was what the Net was built for.  ARPANET had had the possibility of annihilation twisted into the core of it’s code from the beginning…
    Tommy knew the probability factors.  He’d seen the fallout pattern on the Net from Bikini.  He’d focused on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Buenos Aries and Kiev, and done the math.   Time.  Time was the factor.  The world had an indescribable ability to heal itself, given time.  In that, Tommy felt a kinship with the Earth, a sense of inclusion.
    There were trees returning to the Benches.  He’d seen them, while smoking and leaning against the heated steel of the load lifter.  They were pathetic yellow things, struggling through the baked scrim of earth.  But they were there.  Next year, Tommy thought, they would be stronger, bigger, much more ready to deal with the harsh hell of the desert.
    Eventually, humanity would come back to the dead city from those mountain valleys.  They would do it to commune with a distant god, something of distant chatter and half-remembered dreams.  By then, they will have forgotten the world before the Event.  They will have forgotten everything about the machines of rapture, the circuits they’d designed to destroy themselves.
    Time.  And healing.
    When they returned, they would need someone to show them the things of beauty they’d left behind.  That’s why Tommy did what he did every day.  It had gone beyond core programming and had become a passion.  He had access to everything now, all records of humanity.  He’d almost become an external extension of the Net, full of records, photos, an almost infinite byte stream of numbers and figures.
    But that couldn’t tell them who they were, the essential humanness of their being.
    So he collected things.  Bits of lace.  Watches.  Rings.  Books.  Everything that set humanity apart from the inhuman spark of electronic hum and color.  He considered himself a rag and bone man, scooping up the beauty that humanity had left in its wake.
    Unconsciously, he slipped the plastic sheath from the pocket of his jeans, carefully, and held it up to the irregular flash of the departing storm.  The dried veins in the clover leaf lit up, chasing through the three distinct leaves.  He’d read something about humanity and their God, how the clover was supposed to represent the divine.  He turned the plastic through his fingers.  Green smear against the red and black of dust-storm sky.
    Tommy sighed and ground out the cigarette, taking care to slip the clover back into his pocket.  He decided that now was the best time to plug into the Net and dump everything.  He needed to sleep.  Tomorrow, he’d already chosen his block, a neighborhood downtown filled with apartments.  Apartments were always the worst.
    When humanity returned, descending from the mountain, Tommy intended to have all the remains buried away.  He didn’t want the world they left behind to be a dead city, but rather a return to the beauty that was the possibility of their survival. Bones of steel girders and concrete that they could once again add their flesh over.
    When they finally came back, Tommy would be there to greet them and welcome them home.
    
 

© 2008 JR


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Featured Review

Wow. This is quite something [wtf does that mean? ah well, sorry]. I like that you explained the Event to us - it would have been easy enough to leave it vague - or, worse, to tell it to us in too factual a way - but you did a great job of informing us gradually. Tommy is interesting and believable. I don't know why he never fitted in with his workmates; whether it's because he's an unusual guy, maybe intellectual [hence the book collection - or perhaps that's just one section of the human remains he's gathered to himself], or because he isn't human at all. Wait, I had a revelation. Is he a robot, hence the thinking in bytes etc, and no chance of catching cancer...? Suddenly it's even more interesting. A human might have been far more strained by the Event and subsequent loneliness and all of that...but a machine has more patience...
[by the way, if this was an obvious conclusion to come to and I happened to miss the clue, I apologise for that; I'm a bit out of practise re: Cafe reads and reviews]
[likewise if I'm completely wrong: sorry]
Yeah, this is great JR. It intrigues and challenges and absorbs. Excellent work.
Thanks for sharing it with us.

p.s.
"The forty ton load lifter settled down on it's bag" [it's= its]
"possibility of annihilation twisted into the core of it's code" [its]

Posted 10 Years Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.




Reviews

most excellent, sir...the pace is fast, smooth, intelligent...nothing tricky, just straight down the page...the details matter-of-fact...almost documentary...again, most excellent...ed

Posted 10 Years Ago


Wow. This is quite something [wtf does that mean? ah well, sorry]. I like that you explained the Event to us - it would have been easy enough to leave it vague - or, worse, to tell it to us in too factual a way - but you did a great job of informing us gradually. Tommy is interesting and believable. I don't know why he never fitted in with his workmates; whether it's because he's an unusual guy, maybe intellectual [hence the book collection - or perhaps that's just one section of the human remains he's gathered to himself], or because he isn't human at all. Wait, I had a revelation. Is he a robot, hence the thinking in bytes etc, and no chance of catching cancer...? Suddenly it's even more interesting. A human might have been far more strained by the Event and subsequent loneliness and all of that...but a machine has more patience...
[by the way, if this was an obvious conclusion to come to and I happened to miss the clue, I apologise for that; I'm a bit out of practise re: Cafe reads and reviews]
[likewise if I'm completely wrong: sorry]
Yeah, this is great JR. It intrigues and challenges and absorbs. Excellent work.
Thanks for sharing it with us.

p.s.
"The forty ton load lifter settled down on it's bag" [it's= its]
"possibility of annihilation twisted into the core of it's code" [its]

Posted 10 Years Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.


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Added on September 1, 2008

Author

JR
JR

Placerville, CA



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