Crefter was the first to rise, brushing the dust from his limbs. The air lay lank and heavy around us where we sat in a circle on the sand. The dead lead-grey sky was streaking with the red colour of day now, thick and unmoving overhead. The sun had not come up yet, but all the light that would come was here already. We stirred slowly; it was getting harder and harder as time went by, but we could never stop completely. Soon only Roanie was left lying down. Crefter poked at her with his foot, soft first, then a bit harder till he was nearly giving her a kicking. She came up slow, blinking those dark eyes I liked so much.
I was on a dreaming, Crefter, why’d you have to go on a kickin me?
We’d all heard about Roanie’s dreaming many times, but it always stirred something in us. We moved around her, coming in close to hear it.
Crefter stood apart, he didn’t like the talking.
It was a flesh beast. It had four legs, and nice big eyes. I was a riding it, in my dreaming.
We all were quiet, trying to make a picture of the thing she talked about, but none of us could do it, except Thomas.
An equine. The humans kept them like us.
Thomas was the oldest one and he still knew things that the rest of us had forgotten or never even known. It was his remembering that made us crowd Roanie when she talked, because she dreamed true of things she didn’t ever have known. I held my hands out to her and helped her to her feet, her limbs stretching in the dawn air. Roanie was the last one, the closest thing. Made in their image inside as well as out, much more than all the rest of us.
We walked all day while the big red sun bobbed just above the western horizon alongside us. Sometimes out of the murk ahead a tree would appear, a dry skeleton of pale grey against the darker grey of the sky. We saw them less and less though these days, most of them had crumbled into dust by now. Sometimes there were bones. Mostly of humans, because they had lasted longest, but sometimes we found other kinds. Thomas would try to remember names of the things that used to own the bones, but most times even he didn’t know. We walked on. We had our order now, the line of us alongside the sun. Crefter went first, longing for the end. Then Grey and Ren; smaller than the rest of us and identical in every way. Then Roanie, then me. I liked to walk behind her, so I could see the way she moved, her body so like something real: fluid and alive.
Sometimes she would look at the sun, and I would see the side of her face, soft in the red light. Thomas came last behind. He was the slowest now.
When the sun went down we would have to stop. None of us had the energy anymore to keep going without the sun. It was old and didn’t give us as much as it had once. I tried to remember how it had been, but the memory was only a brightness now, and maybe the idea of something more yellow than red. All the other things had gone away from me. We were all settled on the sand now, and the dark was on us proper. I could see their eyes open in the black though. I crawled on the sand over to where Thomas was lying.
Could we have a fire tonight, Thomas? And maybe you could tell a story?
I could see his eyes looking up at the sky. He made a sound inside, a whirring noise.
I suppose we can. But it might be the last one.
Do you still want to?
I nodded, crouching beside him in the gloom. He sat up and looked into the pack he carried. The one he’d saved till last was big, it would make a good burn. I helped with the tearing, I liked the way the paper made more of itself when it was scrunched. When we were done Thomas tented the cover on the top, and took his matches to the bottom of the stack. Thomas had never liked the burning of the books, but I knew he liked the light. Sheens love light. We have no real need of it, except the sun, but we are still drawn to it, longing to understand warmth. Everyone crowded in close, but not as close as me. I couldn’t help but try to get right in to it; I had big melts on my hands and arms from wanting too much to touch it. Thomas put his hand on my shoulder. We were all quiet for the whoosh and flare of it, mesmerised by the colour.
After, when it was just the smoulder left, we sat back to watch the bits of red flake off and float up into the dark. Thomas began to talk. Crefter got up and walked away from the circle.
The world is dead. Everyone who has come before you has died. You are the last, the last thing that moves.
Thomas’s voice went on and up into the sky. I closed my eyes, back flat against the cold sand. I lay still for a long time, but it wasn’t really. How long had it been? I used to try and remember how many nights and days had passed, but after so long I forgot, and there didn’t seem to be any reason to keep on at it.
I sat up. The night was at the darkest, and I was slow in the moving. I moved across the sand to where Crefter sat. He didn’t look at me, and I thought he might like for me to go away. I didn’t though.
I’m sorry about the fire, Crefter.
I meant sorry about the story. I knew Crefter didn’t like it when Thomas told stories about Before.
Crefter was the leader; it was his wanting that made us all walk every day. All Crefter wanted was a forgetting, an end. We followed him because it was in us to obey, and there was nothing else we could do.
The morning came a sickly colour, the sky all browny and mean-looking. By afternoon, a wind was skirling over the sand, getting fiercer. The ground started shifting and the air was thick with dust. We joined hands in a big link. Ren and Grey wanted to stop, but Crefter dragged on. Stopping was bad because the sand could bury you real quick if you were still, and then you’d be stuck down underneath, hoping someone would come and dig you out.
More like you’d have to wait till the next big wind unburied you, and that could be a long time. I liked the wind storms because after sometimes you’d find the desert had spat up all kind of things. Maybe we would find more things to burn.
Finally the wind blew itself out and the air cleared. All the hills and bumps in the land had moved around, but we could still tell the way by walking on next to the sun. It was so little I don’t know how she seen it, but Roanie was often looking around us harder than anyone. She broke out of the line and went ploughing off into the deeper sand.
I plunged after her, not wanting her to get sucked down while everything was still soft and unsettled from the storm. When I got to her she turned, a small bundle tucked in her arms. It was small and shaped like a human, but harder and it didn’t move, made of a plastic not unlike our own skin. Its little eyes were stuck closed with sand but Roanie brushed them with her fingers and they blinked open. One didn’t go up all the way, and underneath the eyes were still. She carried it back to the line and I followed. The others crowded round to have a look. Grey poked at it with a finger, but Thomas just looked and then said,
It’s only a doll, Roanie. We all looked at him.
A toy. Some small human’s thing for playing.
I didn’t know the words he was saying, but I saw the look on Roanie’s little face. She was all lit like a shining kind of thing.
Late, late. The nights got so black now, and they felt endless. Above me the sky was bottomless, a depth that went on and on. The stars had mostly burned out long ago, the dead light leftover, travelling through space. I wondered if the last humans were up there somewhere, on their arks. My thoughts fell into that infinite blackness, I lost contact with the world around me. A world which contained nothing, was empty but for my fellow masheens clicking their limbs in the dark. I went up into the night. The dream of the end was up there somewhere, the hope of a time when everything, at last, might finally stop. The sadness crept in me, that idea of a feeling they’d given me long ago. In the night I cursed those humans for their selfishness. For leaving us behind, to go on and on indefinitely, while the world around us withered and finally died, with just the sun slowly burning out. So slowly.
Away in the black I heard voices and I crawled toward the noise. Thomas and Crefter were talking, invisible in the night. I knew the talk, the same words as always.
Why should we keep going, Crefter? Because I’m tired. I want to turn Off. Maybe there is no way.
Thomas’s voice was desolate, slapping flatly against the night.
They would not do that to us. There must be a way.
You don’t know them like I did, Crefter. They gave no thought to us.
I heard it in Thomas’s voice too, the thing we shouldn’t know but did. A human thing, left over long after all of them were gone, the sadness the last thing of all. Crefter was quiet a long time but finally when I thought the silence would go on till morning he spoke.
We have nothing else to do.
I lay on the cold sand, a prisoner of my unchanging wakefulness. I heard, dimly, Crefter stomp away. Thomas settled on the ground near me, his insides grinding.
Tell me again about the children, Thomas.
Flesh from flesh, slithering from the body into the air. The first breath, the heart beating wildly under the light. The newborn human became something else in time. What I wished for the most was change, the one thing we could never do.
The days went on. Crefter pushed us further, we walked until our feet began to wear away. Thomas was quiet. Roanie cradled the doll in her arms, and a memory flickered in me. Something began to bloom in Roanie that should never have been able to be there. I knew she was different from me, had been made for a different purpose. I could only remember the factory, the unending and unchanging work where I stood in line and connected wiring, making more of myself. And then the dark years in the storage container after my decommissioning. Until the world broke, and the storms and the seas destroyed everything they had built, leaving us behind in the rubble.
In the evening we stopped. I found her behind the dunes. The others were off sitting in the last of the sunlight, but I’d come looking for her. She had the doll close against her chest, rocking it gently back and forth. I came up to her. She was humming quietly, a tune I didn’t know.
In the factory, they said that was for children, something the mothers would sing. I always wanted one for myself.
Her voice ached. She laid the doll aside. I watched while she unwrapped the tattered cloth that covered her; saw the churning metal of her parts underneath. She looked up at me and I saw green in her eyes, that forgotten colour I never thought to see again.
I’ve seen you looking at me.
She was purring nearly, laid out before me. I wanted so badly, but the anatomy of me would not allow it. She looked long in my eyes, and I saw the worst kind of thing there: a hopeless wishing for things that would never be real for us. Made in their image, but made all the same.
I don’t want to go on anymore.
Her voice was dead now, her eyes gone dark. I touched her face one time, like I’d been wanting for so long. Then I reached around behind me and picked up the biggest rock I could find.
I did Crefter next, and the joy in him made the bad of it less for me. He came apart under the stone. I saw the light go out of him, felt him go still. I turned to the others.
Thomas was last. We sat for a minute amongst the wreckage of the others, looking out over the sand. I gripped his hand tight, and he looked long in my face, eyes full of hope. I felt the loneliness rear up in me, but I knew I had to do this last thing for my friend.
Are you ready, Thomas? He nodded.
What will you do?
I looked up at the sky darkening above us, the sun hanging heavy above the horizon, the vast dust- coloured land stretching around us.
I’ll just wait.
He smiled at me, and closed his eyes.
Else Fitzgerald is a Melbourne-based writer. Her work has appeared in various places including Visible Ink, Australian Book Review, The Suburban Review, Offset and Award Winning Australian Writing. She has won or been commended in prizes including the Grace Marion Wilson Prize and the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize. Else is a WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange Program) Emerging Writer Fellow for 2017. She is currently completing a BA in Creative Writing at RMIT and working on a manuscript of short fiction. Find her at elsefitzgerald.com