Art by David Revoy/ Blender Foundation

Black Road

By L. Nicol Cabe

Dust obscured the sun, the thick yellow haze hung low in the sky. The townspeople lazed under porches, choking for water and fanning themselves. The adults kept saying that it was hot, so hot, hotter than usual this year. Many looked at each other with worried glances, the yellow dust clinging to their sweat and wrinkles, making masks of their fear.

Dylan felt itchy and hot. Inside the cover was cooler, but not enough to endure the dust-roughened whispers around him. He grabbed a cracked, hard-plastic bottle, filled it with cloudy water on the sly, and took off into the waist-high scrub behind his house.

Just three kilometers past the rear screen door, an old black road, pitted with cracks and dotted with sparkling pebbles, cut through the pale scrub and tipped over both the east and west horizons. Many Saturdays had left Dylan alone and bored, no water to fetch, no chores, no animals to tend, not even any homework. Lately, on Saturdays, the adults had clustered and croaked worried whispers, their children naturally shying away from their parents’ ankles.

When he first found the road, he tried walking directly on top of it, but after less than a kilometer realized his near fatal mistake — the sun’s angry rays deflected into his eyes, burning his face and hands to bubbling. He stumbled home in a haze of sweat and after-images, and slept for days. His father came in and stayed by his side each night, checking Dylan’s forehead, scratching a clear spot in his bearded cheek from worry. Dylan’s mother only made sure her third child had water on hand at all times, and as soon as he returned to little boy consciousness with an itch to go back out, she scolded him at length and forced him to do indoor chores for weeks.

Eventually, both his parents forgot about the incident, and Dylan returned to the road. Now, on hot and worried Saturdays, he trekked out to the road and followed beside it in a direction of his choice — but never on it.

Halfway to the road, the beating sun started to hurt his scalp and shoulders, so he sacrificed some water and wrapped his head in his wet t-shirt. The sun was hard to follow with the air full of burnt yellow dust, so Dylan headed west, hoping for a nice sunset. The bulk of his latest sunburn would be on the front of his body, and therefore more obvious, but he promised himself to only stay out for a few hours before turning around.

The western part of the road was rockier than the eastern rivulet, chunks of sparkling black gravel spilling into the scrub. Dylan had formed pyramids of stones at near each kilometer so that he would know when to stop and drink. He had not passed three kilometers down the western portion yet, and doubted he would today.

Burnt husks of trees, warped by wind then torn down, twisted flowing patterns in his peripheral vision. The air just over the black road shimmered in the sun. One kilometer — Dylan stopped and slugged from his bottle. His headdress had dried out, so he wetted just the back, which felt cool against the dry air.

Mirages fascinated Dylan. Penelope, one of the few adults who did not talk down to him, knew everything about mirages. Hints of silvery-cool water, forever in the distance, were really beams from the angry sun bouncing at odd angles off the earth and into the viewer’s eye. The black road was especially good at refracting the sunlight. A large pond of shimmering liquid was forever on the horizon. Dylan walked toward it, tilting his head one way, then another, watching the pond grow and shrink. He barely noticed the two-kilometer mark. He spat into the dirt, then swilled water around his mouth.

Pieces of grit dripped into his eyes as he forcibly blinked to make them water. Resisting every urge to itch, Dylan bent over and blinked harder, hoping his tears were stronger than the sand. When he looked up, a black spec appeared on the road’s horizon, wobbling against a background of silver mirage-pond.

Dylan leaned over again and blinked into the ground. He swilled more water, and looked up again. The dot was still against the horizon, and it seemed a little closer.

It appeared to move rapidly and with intention, like the dogs rounding up the antelope, but moving constantly toward him. He stood still for several minutes and watched the spot approach. It moved out of the mirage lake and almost merged with the road, dancing in the heat waves.

His pace could not match the speed of the dot, which began to form a human shape. It had arms, he thought, elbows angled out to the sides. It also might have legs, but it was on top of something that might also have been a pair of legs. Dylan thought he should have been afraid of it, so far away from the town’s armory and other people.

Sounds began to follow the dot, creaking and groaning like metal against metal. The dot resolved itself into more colors — white, tan, brown, blue. It was a person, on top of a device that Dylan couldn’t place. He did recognize that it had wheels.

The person looked up at one point and saw Dylan, raised a hand and waved. Dylan waved back. The device began to slow down, and the person got off it and walked — hobbled, really — toward the boy, head down and shoulders shaking for breath. Squeaking and creaking grew louder as the device and rider approached.

“Who are you?” Dylan said, imitating the barking orders the mayor sometimes gave on work days, when cheery motivation failed.

The person stopped just a handful of meters in front of Dylan, white shirt and tan pants sticking to each limb. A straw hat covered the person’s face, but hair fell out of it, twisted into a braid full of fly-aways. Dylan assumed it was a woman.

“I’m Judith,” the voice croaked. A sun-redden, leathery hand wiped sweat from her chin and onto her pants. “Are you from the nearest town?”

“I think so,” Dylan replied.

“Take me there,” Judith said.

~~~~~

The setting sun burned the sky red through the dust haze. The townspeople had cleared off their porches and gone inside, away from the bloody firmament. Dylan spotted occasional small faces peeking through curtained windows as he, Judith, and the creaking metal device made their way through the center of town.

He purposefully took Judith down the main road, so that the entire population could see her coming. She seemed to understand his purpose, and tilted her hat back as they approached the first buildings. Dylan assumed the woman wanted to find the most authoritative figure in town, so he led to her to the mayor’s office. Mayor Sandoz swung the door open. He barely stood half the height of his office doors, but his deep, booming voice lent all the authority he needed.

“Dylan, what’s going on?”

Before Dylan could speak, the woman stepped forward. “You are the mayor, I presume?”

“Yes, who are you?”

“My name is Dr. Judith Wright. I’m working with the National Meteorological Survey. You should have received a letter about my arrival a few weeks ago. It is urgent that I speak to you, immediately.”

Mayor Sandoz squinted further. “I did not receive a letter. We don’t recognize … that nation. Sorry for your trip, please leave—”

“Please,” Judith interrupted the mayor — a move that made Dylan and Crystal, the mayor’s assistant who peeked over his shoulder, gasp. “Take a look at these papers,” she rustled through her saddlebags and produced a sheaf of tattered pages. “Regardless of what you think about the national turmoil, sir, it is important for me to speak with you.”

She approached the mayor’s front porch, but he barked at her to stop in her tracks. “Dylan,” he finally said. “Grab those papers and bring them to me.”

Dylan looked up at Judith’s worn features. Without taking her eyes off the mayor, Judith gave Dylan her handful of papers. Mayor Sandoz gestured fitfully for Dylan to come up the stairs, grabbed the papers from him, and tossed them in Crystal’s direction like he had picked up a rattlesnake. With a disgusted look on her face, fingertips barely touching the edges, Crystal began to skim them. The stress lines around her mouth loosened as her lips parted and eyes widened, then she whispered a few words, quick and clipped, in Mayor Sandoz’s ear. The mayor gestured Judith inside. She hobbled up to the nearest railing and leaned her metal device against it, untangling the saddlebag from the back.

Mayor Sandoz looked down at Dylan. “Thanks, son,” he said, voice assuming a false warmth that only adults believed. “You can head home now, I bet your parents are worrying about you.”

Dylan thought for a moment. “Where is Judith going to stay?” he asked. It didn’t seem right to send her right back out of town in the middle of the night.

“Don’t you worry about that, Dylan. We’ll find somewhere for her to sleep. If these papers are right, she’ll need to be here for a while. Now head on home.”

Dylan stood his ground. “Penelope could take her in. She could help Judith find her way around tomorrow.”

Mayor Sandoz halted mid-condescension. He nodded. “You make a good point, Dylan. I’ll have Crystal talk to Penelope. Now, get outta here before I tan you!”

~~~~~

Dylan’s mother did not take kindly to the news of the new woman, and how she found the town. Violet and Henry, Dylan’s older siblings, smirked at him over the dinner table as his mother lit into him about the dangers of leaving the town. His father looked worried, but said little, and focused on chewing his potatoes. Dylan was dismissed from the dinner table early.

A few hours later, after his mother had time to calm down, his father brought Dylan an antelope jerky sandwich, on the stale crust of the last loaf of bread, with some pickled carrots and string beans. This time last year, they had fresh tomatoes and spinach, but the garden had all withered after the mayor rationed water.

His father placed the plate carefully on the edge of Dylan’s bed and sat next to it. He studied his son’s face for a minute after Dylan told him thank you and pretended to read his tablet.

“You walked into town with a stranger, Dylan. Where did you run into her?” his father asked, voice low and soft with deliberation.

Dylan stalled by chewing an chunk of jerky. “Just outside of town,” he finally replied, but knew after he said it that it wouldn’t be vague enough for his father.

“How far outside of town?”

“I dunno. A couple of kilometers, I guess.”

“How did you get a couple of kilometers outside of town without getting lost?”

Dylan couldn’t think of a good excuse, so he didn’t say anything.

“Did you follow the highway?”

Dylan shrugged and asked, “What’s the High Way?”

His father looked at him. “It’s a long stretch of road. Used to run through this town. It’s probably all broken down now. It’s made from tarmac and concrete, jet black.”

Dylan took another bite of his sandwich. His father sighed again, and pushed the power button on his son’s tablet.

“You did, didn’t you? You found the highway and you walked along it.”

Dylan nodded as he chewed.

“Alright. I won’t tell your mother about this, okay? But you can’t go there again. It’s … far too dangerous. There’s a reason no one uses it. Nothing good ever came down that highway.”

“Judith isn’t bad,” Dylan said. He tried to keep his voice quiet, but his hackles were raised in her defense.

“We’ll see about that,” his father said, and got up.

~~~~~

Dylan woke up before the rest of his family, slugged a huge glass of dusty water, and grabbed a can of peaches from the pantry on his way out. The sun had barely been up an hour, and already the day was sweltering. Normally, he would have stayed inside as long as he could tolerate, or picked a direction along the black road to explore some more, but today, he wanted to go to Penelope’s house before the inevitable crowd began to gather to stare at the newcomer.

He spotted two shadows just behind Penelope’s kitchen curtains as he ran up to the porch and knocked on the door. Judith’s contraption leaned against the porch railing. The tires were black, like the road she’d come in on, and the framework was an ancient rusted metal, which Dylan could see, through the browned layers, had once been painted blue.

Penelope’s freckled, perpetually-sun-reddened face peeked through the door at him.

“Hi Dylan, what are you doing here?” she asked, pushing the door open a little further. Strands of wispy red hair were already clinging to her neck.

“I’m here to see how Judith is doing,” he replied, and handed her the can of peaches as a peace offering. She took them and let him scoot past her into her dining area.

Penelope’s kitchen table was covered in papers, schematics, wires, and several tablets, which were plugged into a generator that hummed away underneath the table. Judith eyed him over the rim of her glass of water.

“Hi Judith,” he said as he sat down. Penelope returned with the peaches in a bowl, sprinkled with sugar and cheese curds, and a few slices of bread.

Judith finished her sip of water, took a slice of bread, and dipped it into the peach juice. “Hi Dylan,” she finally said, a note of caution edging her voice.

Dylan decided to mirror Judith’s breakfast choices, hoping to show her that he was alright, he didn’t want to gawk at her like everyone else had yesterday. He dipped a crust of bread into the peach juice and sucked the soft, sweet remains away. After an adult-length pause, he asked, “That device you came in on yesterday? What is it?”

Judith scooped up a peach slice with a piece of bread and shoved it into her mouth; Dylan mirrored the action, but his slice was bigger than hers and he had to chew furiously to keep it from falling out of his mouth.

“You don’t have those here?” she asked, licking sugar off her fingers. Dylan shook his head.

“It’s called a bicycle,” Judith answered. “There’s a series of gears on the back and front with a chain running along them that, when you pedal, move the wheels. It’s much faster than walking.”

“Can I try it?” Dylan asked. Penelope coughed and caught Dylan’s eye. Her pointed stare told him he might have crossed a line of politeness. Dylan stifled more questions with a large peach slice, which did not quite fit in his mouth. The left corner of Judith’s mouth twitched up in a smile.

Penelope took a large cheese curd and chewed it thoughtfully, watching Dylan’s panicked chewing more closely than he liked. When he was close to done, she said, “Did Judith tell you anything about why she’s here?”

Dylan shook his head, but added, to show he knew something about current events, “I would guess it’s pretty important if you got a generator from the mayor.”

Penelope nodded. “There’s going to be a big meeting about it later today at the Mayor’s Office. There won’t be many friendly faces in the crowd, so we might need you to help us convince everyone that she’s here to for a good reason.”

Judith took a long sip of water and watched Dylan. He shrugged and nodded.

A pocket-sized tablet on the table gently buzzed against a pile of papers. Judith snatched it from its nesting spot and flicked it on, hand shaking. After some moments of Penelope and Dylan staring at her in silence, she put the device down and pushed her chair back.

“Penelope, let the mayor know I’m ready to meet everyone. I’ll gather some things and meet you at his office.”

~~~~~

The townsfolk turned out in force, mainly to gawk at the sunburnt newcomer and her creaking metal. The kids murmured their disappointment that Judith was not astride the machine today, and Dylan corrected them by explaining the bicycle and how it worked. It was much faster than walking after all, and maybe Penelope, or Josh the blacksmith, could build a few of the machines for everyone to ride around town. Dylan’s mother shushed the idea and shrugged apologetically at their neighbors.

Penelope, Judith, and Crystal leaned against the outside wall of the mayor’s office. Mayor Sandoz shuffled some papers in his hands and cleared his throat. He raised a hand and the murmuring buzz from the townsfolk immediately stopped.

“My friends,” he said, syrupy kindness entering his voice, his lips spread wide to display his huge white teeth. “As you know, Dr. Judith Wright came into town yesterday on a mission from the National Meteorological Survey. I have spoken with her at length, and she is not here to force our allegiance. Rather, she is here to warn us of a potential tragedy, and to help us.”

The murmuring resumed, louder, and shuffling feet kicked up dust. Mayor Sandoz raised his hand again.

“Dr. Wright has been sent to visit towns like ours, to help us avoid the Onslaught. She’s going to tell us now what we need to do. I plan to help her, and I expect you all to do the same.”

Judith stepped to the edge of the stairs and thanked Mayor Sandoz. She lifted a hand to cover her eyes and examine the sea of faces before her.

“About two years ago, the National Meteorological Survey noticed something on long-range radars,” she said, making eye contact with each person in the crowd. “After some analysis, we realized it was relic technology from Pre-War times.” She paused for a moment as the frightened murmuring turned into outright argument, borderline panic. When it died down, she began again. “This is a frightening situation, but there are things we can do. Unfortunately, this town isn’t very big, so everyone is going to have to work hard for the next few days.”

Dylan’s mother, who had been muttering to herself behind her hand, shouted, “I remember Pre-War times, doctor. I moved out here to escape that Smart Tech, so my children wouldn’t have to know that fear. How do we know your plan will keep us safe? And for how long?”

Other members of the crowd nodded, took defensive stances, and glared at Judith for a satisfying answer.

“Because I’ve dealt with this before,” she replied.

~~~~~

For three days, in the hot sun, every member of the town followed Judith’s and Penelope’s directions. Young children mixed precious water with dirt, older children hauled reed mats out of houses and handed them to lithe adults, who dashed up ladders and passed them off to other adults, who spread the reeds on roofs and smeared the mud on top. Mothers and daughters swept white sand onto their porches, and yelled at anyone who left footprints in their work.

Dylan was one of the water-bearers, running up and down the main street with a yoke and two buckets slung across his shoulders. When the town ran out of reed mats, he and some of the other boys collected dead long grass under the curious gaze of antelope herds that flicked their soft ears to brush the humans and the flies alike away.

Judith and Penelope spent their time analyzing information on tablets and writing equations on giant pieces of butcher paper. They bickered and bartered with each other in the hot sun on the mayor’s porch, with Crystal running back and forth to bring them more chalk or a new generator.

Eventually, their supplies ran out. They had just enough water for the whole town to survive a week, according to Penelope, so the kids stopped making mud. Judith peeled a piece of sunburnt skin off her forearm, but nodded as Penelope explained the situation with supplies. They had not covered all the houses in town, but it would have to suffice. Judith took the three remaining portable generators, and set one of her tablets up under a reed mat in the center of town. It would run constantly for the next week, she hoped, scanning the skies and hopefully deflecting some of the smarter pieces of Smart Tech.

Those who had not managed to cover their houses were instructed to pile their belongings into storage wherever they could, bring any extra food they’d been saving, and bunk with neighbors. Dylan’s family took in two neighbor families, the Saro-Wiwas and the Evrards. Both families had two children, none of whom were in Dylan’s age range, so he accepted that he would be bored for a week inside. At least his most recent sunburn would have time to heal.

The first wave came late, just after a late dinner of the last of the pickled carrots and some rabbit that Henry caught and smoked. Dylan leaned against the kitchen window, naming constellations to himself, when he caught sight of the approaching pack in a beam of moonlight — bobbing silver spheres with black boxes dangling from them. They moved slowly but steadily toward the town.

“Mom…” Dylan said. She gazed out in the direction he pointed, then turned on her heel and frantically began blowing out candles. Mrs. Saro-Wiwa ripped a tablet from her teenage son’s hands and turned it off. Dylan’s father threw blankets against the larger windows, and the Evrards closed bedroom doors.

The group huddled in the living room and watched the silent silver parade waft over the town through the tiniest crack in the curtains.

“Are those the balloons?” Violet asked. “They’re so much closer than Penelope said they’d get.”

“Be quiet, Vi,” Dylan’s mother snapped, voice gritty with tension. They remained silent as the last of the spherical apparitions disappeared into the distance.

~~~~~

The next wave came just after sun-up. No one in the house had slept well, and everyone crawled out of bed as soon as they heard Dylan pour his first cup of water. As the group quietly began searching the kitchen for breakfast, Chidi, the Saro-Wiwas’ barely-six-year-old son, rushed to the window and stared with his face pressed up against the glass. His mother grabbed him as soon as she noticed, but stopped just after she pulled his face away from the pane.

Dylan stopped crunching a string bean long enough to listen — a modulated hum, like a beehive, was getting louder, closer.

“Look at the size of that dust cloud,” Dylan’s father said, as pale yellow dust rolled through the street outside, obscuring the view.

Dylan approached the kitchen window quickly, while the adults began to close the curtains in each room. A rounded object, four insect-like wings aflurry on each corner of its body, landed on the Evrards’ house next door. Another landed beside it, then another, until a swarm sat perched on the roof of the house.

A dull rumbling shook the floor and rattled Dylan’s teeth. He ran away from the window and hid under the table. The two younger children in the house wailed, then stifled their cries as the families threw blankets over themselves and hid under furniture.

Yellow dust seeped up through cracks in the floor. A long beam of sunlight peaked through the kitchen window’s curtain, and Dylan watched it move across his vision as the humming and rumbling drowned out the uncomfortable coughing and terrified sniffing of the people trapped together inside the small, humid house. When the beam of sunlight began warming the back of his hand, Dylan finally noticed that the buzzing was gone, and the rumbling died down.

Anise, the Evrards’ nearly-adult daughter, sprang to her feet first and ran to the kitchen window. Dylan and the Evrard parents were close behind. Their neighbors’ house was gone, reduced to a tiny pile of brown brick pieces and white plaster flecks. Anise allowed herself a sob before turning away to clean up the pile of blankets.

~~~~~

A massive wave of silver balloons came the next day, through the afternoon and into the evening. The house was hot and sweaty, as the blankets had gone up against the windows early in the day. No one was willing to take them down, even for a breath of fresh air.

Just as an improvised supper — sauerkraut, antelope jerky, and ancient cans of spongy ham — hit the table, a knock at the door froze the group in fear. Dylan’s mother cautiously stood from the table, crept as quietly as she could toward the door, and peeked through a crack. A whispered exchange, and the visitor came in.

It was Judith. She was covered in yellow dust from the street, and wheeled her creaking bicycle in behind her.

“Good, I’m glad to see you’re all alright,” she said as she pulled her pocket tablet out of a saddle bag and fingered some figures into it.

“Hi, Judith,” Dylan said. She looked up at him and a corner of her mouth twitched up.

“Thank you for coming, Dr. Wright,” Dylan’s mother said, after giving her son a squinting look of disapproval.

“We should have about 10 hours before the next wave,” Judith said, “I’m making sure the modifications are holding, and everyone is doing alright on food and water.”

Mr. Saro-Wiwa shrugged. “We’re doing as well as anyone else, I expect. The water’s a little dirty and we’re living on canned goods.” His wife play-slapped his wrist.

Judith nodded. “I can’t be sure yet, but I think we only have one more wave after this. The quadcopters destroyed…” She looked around at the stoic faces. Anise bit her lip and gripped her younger sister’s hand. “They destroyed a lot of the town, unfortunately, but in another day or two the Smart Tech should have passed over. Keep all your activities at a minimum until then — the Clean-Up Crew is always the smartest.”

Everyone nodded. Judith put her mini-tablet away and wheeled her bicycle to the door. As the door opened, a distant rumble — like a cat’s purr and a failing generator’s growl — echoed off the walls of buildings throughout the town and into Dylan’s home.

Judith ducked back inside and slammed the door shut. “Damn,” she muttered.

Dylan snuck a peek outside through the hanging blankets. The sun had sunk well below the horizon, spreading a blanket of stars across the sky, and he couldn’t see anything other than their twinkling, and the dark outlines of houses across the town, blue in the moonlight.

The rumbling grew louder, with an underlying pulse that shook settled dust off the rims of picture frames. Judith helped the family arrange sturdy furniture into the middle of the room, hiding the youngest children in the center.

Cracking. Explosions. Screaming. Glass breaking and tinkling down the street. Something heavy thudding into the main road. Pebbles bouncing off the house’s windows, like drops of rain. A heavy boom more felt than heard.

Even Chidi sat in solid silence as the blasts rolled through the town.

Some time, after the blasts began to fade, or he began to go deaf from the noise, Dylan nodded off in his father’s arms.

~~~~~

He awoke in his bed with sunlight burning past his eyelids. His drapes were open to the outside world, for anyone or anything to look into. Before the panic registered in his mind, Dylan had already jumped out of bed and slammed the curtains shut, almost ripping them off the rods with the force of his fear.

Nothing hummed outside. He could hear a few muffled voices outside his window, possibly in the street. Some murmuring as Violet said something to their mother in the main living area. But there were no crashes, no explosions, no rumbling or growling or grinding of engine parts against building material.

Dylan opened one side of his curtain. He gripped the rough fabric as his hand began to shake.

A layer of yellow dust had settled over what remained of the town — a few buildings, crumbled stone, plaster chips, and wood beams, several of which lay across the road, giving the destruction a sense of direction and order. Crystal and Judith stood next to one of the beams, murmuring to each other and taking notes into tablets. Dylan’s father and brother, Henry, stood in a circle with some other men, conferring with the mayor, faces pulled tight and rimmed with sweat.

Both the Evrards’ and the Saro-Wiwas’ homes had been completely destroyed, Dylan saw on either side. Any building that had no cover was gone in a pile of rubble too small to salvage. None of the town’s children were out, picking through the debris. Normally, after larger windstorms, the children were the first to pick up scattered trash and belongings, reclaim debris from fallen antelope enclosures or garden fences.

Despite his mother’s objections from the kitchen, Dylan slugged a glass of water and ran outside. Several buildings that had been covered were also demolished, but in much larger hunks of twisted metal and brick and splinters. The mayor’s office still had one wall standing, but any sign of the roof was gone, glass from the windows sparkled up and down the road, the door torn in half and laying across the pile of the other three walls, as if placed there with care.

The hot breeze blew a hint of dust into Dylan’s eyes, which he scraped away with his fingers. His tears made the destruction clearer in his sight, the blue of the mid-morning sky a surreal punch of color against what was left of the drab, off-white town.

Dylan’s father placed a hand on his arm, bent over to look into the child’s eyes. “You should go back inside for awhile,” he said.

Dylan blinked up at him. His father’s beard was matted with sweat and dirt, and a tiny cut formed a scab just under the man’s left eye. “What happened?” he asked.

His father’s classic, care-worn sigh escaped, and he sat on the porch step with some effort. “Dr. Wright thinks the last wave of balloons were smarter than she anticipated. She thinks they picked up her phone’s signal as the first wave left, they maybe recognized her phone from previous towns, and followed her as she went from house to house.”

“How could she know that?” Dylan asked.

“Well,” his father’s voice wavered and he coughed. “She says the buildings that were destroyed in the second wave … were all houses she had visited before coming to see us.”

Dylan looked out over the destruction. Debris was strewn everywhere, but the larger pieces of debris were collected at the northern end of town, while the southern end seemed to have escaped with only unoccupied buildings razed.

Unoccupied buildings.

“The people inside…” Dylan started, when his father gripped his arm harder.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said, cutting Dylan off. “I need you to go back inside now.”

~~~~~

Over days, remains were found and identified. Blankets were donated and a mass grave was dug outside of town. Each name was lovingly inscribed into a tombstone, made from the beams and brick of fallen houses, which was rooted deep into the ground so that no windstorm or Smart Tech event could take it away.

Penelope had died in the final attack. Because Judith had been staying with her, it was the first house the balloons traced her signal back to, and the first to be leveled by drones. Something stirred behind Dylan’s rib cage when he saw her name in the tombstone, but he pushed it away. Nothing since the Smart Tech event felt like anything anymore. A dividing line, wider and darker than the black river-road behind his house, marked the boundary between the Dylan before, and the Dylan now.

The townspeople tolerated Judith’s help with cleanup with tight lips and shifty eyes. No one felt remorse or loss when Mayor Sandoz announced she was leaving, nearly a month after the tech rolled through town.

The morning was quiet and cool, purple sky fading into pale pink as the sun rose. Dylan woke from fitful but indistinct dreams, events felt in his bones but hidden from his mind’s eye. The rubble outside his window had been mostly cleared, but vacant lots stretched into the distance on all sides. He avoided the windows in his house, now.

Violet was still asleep, Henry was helping gather food for the cleanup crews, and his parents were on rubble duty and out the door before the sunrise. Dylan poured a glass of water and nibbled a dried apricot left out from the previous night’s desert.

A knock on the door caused Dylan to jump, spilling water from his glass across the floor. When the sound finished echoing through his imagination, he set his glass down and crossed to the front door, opening it enough to see with one eye who stood on the doorstep.

“Hi, Judith,” Dylan said as he surveyed the bicycle and the figure attached to it.

“Hi, Dylan,” she replied.

“You’re leaving town today, right?”

“Yeah, I’m all packed.” She lovingly patted the rusty metal beast. “I came to say goodbye, and thank you for helping me … when all this started.”

Dylan nodded but said nothing.

“I’ve left a monitoring program with Crystal,” she said when she realized the depth of his silence. “I hope it will help you see if the Smart Tech comes back.”

Dylan nodded again.

Judith coughed. “I bet you could train in it. You could be the official monitor for the town’s safety. You’re one of the few in this town who even knew about Highway 15, let alone traveled it. You’re smart and you’ll pick up what to look for in no time.”

Judith’s eyes pleaded with Dylan for a word. He knew he should have said thank you, or nice to meet you, or some other pleasantry his mother had unpleasantly drilled into him a hundred thousand times before. But none of those words came to his lips. The only thing that came to his lips had been circling his mind for days, picking up speed and echoing now like thunder.

“Nothing good ever came down the highway,” he said, and shut the door.

~~~~~

~~~~~

L. Nicol Cabe is a science fiction nerd of many stripes – writer, playwright, performer. This is her first officially published short story, but she has a novel published in blog form called “Europa Dreams” at europadreams.blogspot.com, and will also perform a dystopian sci-fi one-woman show at the Seattle Fringe Festival in September 2014.

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