Today’s Tuesday Short Story is by Steve Dempsey. Steve lives in England with his wife Paula, writer of the award-winning Occult Guide to London. A writing couple, they communicate from separate rooms by email and sarcastic Facebook comments. Occasionally they emerge to look for more books and meet like-minded people.
This is the story’s first publication.
by Steve Dempsey
The Natural Resources team swept over the ruins, sixty metres apart, scanning for signs of life. Where there had once been roads and houses and order there was now chaos. Everything man-made had been swept away. The tidal wave had thrown the houses back like a blower to the last leaves of autumn. There were no trees, no fences, no street lights; instead there were drifts of smashed bricks, timber and windows, overlaid with a brown and green stinking carpet of filth. The team members stood in their gleaming white biosuits, ten miles from the coast of one of the three inhabited islands, and all was covered with rotting seaweed and dead fish.
Neeta, following the line of an old railway, had found an enormous jellyfish, one that wasn’t in their databases. The tendrils were sprawled across what remained of the rusting rails, stretching to where its bell, ten feet tall, stood proud like a tent. The sunshine sparkled on the white translucent flesh, and seagulls sat across its top, idly pecking at their exotic meal. Neeta stood transfixed by the vision while Ashwin took samples.
Jera, the team leader, soon had them back looking for live targets, but in this dead landscape nothing moved. And the stench was horrendous. Even with ionic filters, the odour made their noses run and eyes water; they stopped every two hours to change their equipment.
Later they were all in the showers, standing in the stream of warm soapy water. Jera ran the sonic scrubber over Ashwin’s broad back.
“I’m never going to be clean again,” he said, and wrinkled his nose.
“This won’t take long.” She ran the device up and down twice, over his legs and his shaved head.
“I feel like Noah, you know, sat in the belly of the whale?”
“I think you mean Jonah,” Neeta said, splashing at him.
“That’s the one. God may have saved him,” he took the scrubber from Jera and started running it over her, “but I bet he never got the smell out of his hair.”
“Oh my God,” Neeta said, “we’re cursed!” She held her nose.
Ashwin laughed, and Neeta started to giggle. She couldn’t stop. She leaned back against the wall of the shower and slid slowly down to the floor, chuckling, holding her sides, hiccuping as she swallowed water. Ashwin had stopped scrubbing Jera, who marched over, arms akimbo and poked Neeta with her foot.
“You’re not a little girl. Just fucking get on with it.”
* * *
Time was short. Nothing could be expected to last more than a few days. They had to pick up the pace.
Human Resources had come through first, and dealt with the survivors and the not-so-lucky. Now it was their turn, collecting anything that might help re-establish the local biodiversity. Tomorrow it would be the flora team.
No megafauna except for birds had been projected to survive. However, Ashwin had spotted a house cat earlier, and had killed it. The ecosystem was fragile enough, and anyway they were banned: someone must have smuggled one through, or genmodded one from a cheap start-up kit. There were safeguards, but any half-decent biohacker could bypass them and, given enough biomass, be churning out bird-murderers within a month. You might as well nuke the site from orbit, Jera had said, but it was an old joke and nobody laughed.
“What if we find an alien?” Neeta asked, half seriously.
“We are the fucking aliens,” Jera said, her round face set with that look that said “get back to work”.
And that was it for the next few hours, the tedium only broken by the need to change filters or have a drink.
* * *
As it was getting dark, Ashwin got a ping. They hadn’t seen anything all day, so when the scanner picked up a slight trace of signal he decided to investigate even though it was probably ghosting. His suit’s servos complained as he shifted a pile of rubble to reveal a subterranean room. It was largely full of detritus, more dead fish mixed in with soiled laundry, but in one corner there was a chest. It had once been white, but with the collapse of the building and the water it now looked a dull rust colour. Ashwin pushed the debris aside and opened the chest.
“I’ve got something!” he shouted over the comlink. “A species of insect. A pollinator.”
It was a small furry creature with wings, which had survived the apocalypse by being shut in the cabinet. Possibly the collapse of the ceiling had closed the lid with the insect inside. When the others arrived, Ashwin was gently coaxing it into a capture box. “It’s dehydrated,” he said, “but it’ll survive.”
“It’s a bee,” Neeta said, running checks as she ran over. “According to the data they’re social, so there might be others nearby.”
They spread out and started searching for insect markers: pheromones, droning noises, constructions. But after half an hour Jera started complaining, saying that Neeta was wasting their time. No colony of bees would have survived the onslaught. It was getting dark, and in any case the flora team would be in the next day.
* * *
They were about to pack up when Ashwin called again: he had a lead.
Neeta rushed over. “You always get the good stuff.”
“This had better be worth it,” Jera mumbled. They were ten minutes behind schedule and she had teaching duty that night.
Ashwin was kneeling by a large piece of corrugated aluminium; the wall or roof of a light industrial building or smokery. They had dotted the coast before, taking advantage of the plentiful sea life.
“It’s under here,” Ashwin said. He had peeled up a corner of the sheet, but even with his powered suit had not been strong enough to remove it completely. “Give me a hand,” he said to Neeta.
Jera stood and watched, her arms folded.
Together they grabbed the metal and pulled. At first it didn’t move, but then shifted and they both fell. Jera peered over at what had been beneath and shuddered, blanching through the filter mask.
After a pause she said, “Is that all?” And then: “Come on. Let’s go.”
Ashwin looked sheepish, but Neeta went over to look.
In the debris and mud was a face. The serene face of a young girl. The mud had been washed from it, and it lay like Sleeping Beauty, straggly blonde hair framing delicate features: pale lips, high cheekbones with a few freckles, barely visible eyebrows, eyes closed. No more than twelve or thirteen. Neeta bent down. Jera stood ten metres away, trying not to look.
“Come on,” Jera said. “I can’t be late. I’ve got duty tonight.”
Neeta ignored her. “Did you get a scan?” she asked Ashwin.
“I did. She’s not anybody. She’s not a clone, if that’s what you’re wondering. She’s a natural, but nothing interesting. Slightly higher resistance to malaria, so probably a local. I checked the logs but nobody has reported her missing.”
Neeta wasn’t listening. She bent closer, bringing her face up to that of the dead girl, as if she wanted to get more of her than just the image of her face, to breathe her in. Her hair fell onto the girl’s cheek, and she brushed it away without thinking. The skin was cold but not clammy, still silky smooth. She smiled almost imperceptibly, and leaned in closer and kissed the girl on the lips.
Jera made a squawking sound and doubled over. Then she pulled her mask off to rinse it out. Eventually she said, “We… I… am leaving. You can stay, but I’m leaving.”
* * *
On the way back, Ashwin put the hover on auto. They had a team meeting, going over the finds of the day and their performance. Jera explained that Neeta’s serotonin level was outside operating parameters and that the next day she would have to report for psychevaluation.
Usually such as rebuke would have brought a squeak of indignation, but Neeta seemed distant and uncaring. Suddenly she said, “Didn’t you use to work in Human Resources?”
Jera carried on logging their work.
“But didn’t you?”
“So don’t we have to report her?”
“The dead girl. The face in the mud…”
“No, you see? There.” She pointed at the display. “You missed her out.”
Jera shot her a look. “If Human Resources didn’t catalogue it,” she finally said, “then it can’t have been worth reporting. And, besides, it wasn’t anybody.” She looked over to Ashwin’s chair, but he’d gone out to check the flight plan.
“Why did you leave HR?” Neeta asked.
Then she asked a second time.
Jera sighed. “I got promoted,” she said, rather too quickly. She peered at the screen, and that was that.
* * *
Neeta found Ashwin in the galley. He handed her a cup of coffee. “She’s not always like that. She was in HR when they had that moonquake in 2099. Her sister was in the dome that burst.”
Neeta just smiled. “It’s OK,” she said.
* * *
Two days later, Neeta reported back to work. She came on board the hover and sat down next to Ashwin in the cockpit. He caught her reflection in the viewscreen, and his eyes widened. Her hair was now blond, incongruous against her dark features. Neeta smiled back.
Jera came in and said, “Hello, who’s…?” and then realised. She turned and went out again.
Ashwin clicked on his console. “Look,” he said. “She’s calling up your psych-eval.”
“That’s fine,” Neeta said. “It’s part of my treatment. I have to express my individuality.” She logged in and they took off.
The next day, when she turned up for work, Neeta had freckles across her cheeks.
The day after, Jera did not report in, and Ashwin was promoted to team leader.
“We’re going to get on all right, aren’t we?” he said to Neeta.
It wasn’t really a question.