Twilight of the Long Road Come
by Peter Philleo
His name is in my house, on a hard drive, somewhere.
The words gave me reason to wonder again.
I had first seen those words, those letters, flickering on a tiny window I held in my hand. Some sort of ancient device from centuries past that still contrived to function, as I eventually discovered. A small block made of materials I had never once seen in the hands of our few forgers and artisans. I had found it in a cave next to a lonely set of old bones and bits of leather and rust.
The bones were arranged like someone who had simply sat down to take a brief respite and forgotten to wake up, save for the skull with a large hole in the back of it. It didn’t seem accidental.
I stepped around the bones, poking through the remnants of cloth and metal at the skeleton’s side. Hidden in a metal pouch, I removed the device and marveled at its delicacy and intricacy as I turned it over in my hands. It was so small I could hold it in my palm, and as I carried it out of the dark cave for a better view I teased out its only secret at the whim of luck.
As I dusted off a small set of rectangles with my thumb under the pale glare of a wan, gray twilight sun a small red light blipped regularly at the top of the device. So it needed the sun to warm it? What else might it do?
And then the little glass window turned on, showing me those words on a panel lit from some internal light.
His name is in my house, on a hard drive, somewhere.
I found that I understood the words, if not the meaning, even though the shape of the letters were needlessly obtuse and complex and much more detailed than I had learned to write from lessons out of my mother’s tattered letter books.
There was also a small drawing accompanying the words, a picture of sorts, and after a moment of pondering I saw things I recognized. The shape of it was a map, and no more complicated than a map I might draw to show a simpleton where to take the sheep to shear, or the cows to pasture.
And then the device went dark in my hand. No amount of sun could awaken it, and no manipulation of its buttons. It seemed fragile despite the centuries it had survived, and I was loath to hit it against a rock like I might a flopping fish pulled from a creek, but in my frustration I had sorely wished to.
It was in my pocket now as I trudged across the wasteland of the earth.
The sun was high and harsh and hot in the east. The cold, nightly groaning of the dry trees had subsided, and the cracking and heaving of the earth had begun in earnest as the sun warmed the soil. I hopped across a small chasm in the road, and then a larger gap. Deep in the guts of those chasms ran bright strips of hot lava like knife wounds across flesh. The heat rose in a curtain as I leapt through it.
“The earth is unsettled and unhappy with us,” my mother had said. “The earth is done with us and all of our revenge stacked upon revenge. It is too much revenge, not enough mercy. Soon, we will be vomited forth like your dog might do with bad meat, and we will be no more.”
I glanced down at my collie, Ringo. His steps were uneasy, the whine in his throat tentative, and I believed my mother’s words. If there was a thing that seemed unhappy right now, it was the dirt upon which I trod. And Ringo.
But I needed to know what the device meant, and what the words meant, and what the map pointed to.
And so I walked, hitching my small travel bag up higher onto my shoulder, following the ghostly outlines of long thin rectangles that guided me down the middle of the upheaved black road.
The trees were bare and stark around me, thin fingers of wood that held a tenuous grip on the gray sky with their sharp claws, as if they themselves might be dragged to hell like any of the other few remaining souls on this earth. For now, however, they clung to the remnants of their life, upright and steadfast.
“Who?” I said. “Who is he?” Ringo looked up at me with his large, trusting eyes, but they held no particular answers, other than the simple love of a beast for his master. And fear. I scratched his strong, furry neck, the white and orange and black hair thick and rough under my hands. He gazed at me with those huge brown eyes and barked.
We walked throughout the day, guided only by the memory of the map lodged in my head.
The earth around us vented out foul gases, and pools and swamps of acid and lava formed and disappeared and reformed with the shuddering of the earth. Trees fell of their own accord nearby or in the distance, and boulders cracked, and the dry earth puffed dust, carried away by a bleak wind.
I had never been so far from home. Never been so far from the cool underground grottos where we eked out a life with those others still able to lead a horse and plow or harvest the withered ears of corn from the fields or collect the sparse bitter water that fell from the sky. There was no reason for any to seek adventure when the burden of living was so heavy.
But the device I’d found had opened a curiosity in me I hadn’t known existed.
I had begged my mother for this chance to discover the secrets of those words I had read. My argument to her balanced my own desire for adventure with the promises to bring back anything that might ease our living. And, eventually, she had allowed it, with hugs and kisses and not a few parting lectures.
My mother said the souls of the dead were still on this earth. She said that those that had died at the end, in the final, furious unmaking of the earth—and all those since—had nowhere to go, now that god was dead and the church was gone and nobody bothered with burials or funerals any longer. She said that that those loose, angry spirits were the source of all magic now, that all magic was simply these souls responding to the wills and whims and desires of those who asked them for it. She said the heaving and falling of the earth was all those vengeful souls looking for a way into the earth—or a way out. She said…well, she said a lot of things.
I was no child and no fool, but my mother had proven herself right about a great many things.
Is in my house…
I looked at the hollow shell of an ancient building near the road as we walked past, and Ringo did too, a low growl in his throat. Was this a house? I could imagine it might be, haunted still with the souls that used to live there. The dark holes in the walls that once held glass might be eyes, and the gaping doorway might be a mouth.
But its location did not match the map in my head.
I hurried on before any hands or fingers formed at the edges of my imagination, gripping and ripping the lid off my fortitude. I had no magic with which to defend myself, and feared what all those vengeful souls might do.
The gray land stretched off into the distance in front of me, colorless as undyed wool, the sky yellow and sullen above it. The map suggested I was close, and the curves in the road matched the map, but I saw no feature to indicate where I might go from here.
And then I did.
A fork in the road deviated from the black tarry surface, reluctantly visible as a curving path of dead weeds and steaming gaps in the earth. The stubs of a metal fence jutted from the earth like broken teeth, originally there to block access to the smaller road.
I stepped past the failed fence with barely a glance.
Off in the distance, there was a less natural collection of rocks and smooth stones and flat angles that could only have been created by man, back when we knew how to do such things. Trees had fallen atop it and rotted and dead leaves drifted against it. A house?
“Ringo,” I called, then clicked with my tongue. I waved ahead with my hand, and he whined and paused and whined again, but he eventually led the way. I followed, relying on my dog to find the safe path off the road and stepped where he stepped, away from the sinking pits and acid pools.
Near the pile of rubble, Ringo growled, sniffing and bobbing his head in front of a thin gap in the old stone and metal, trying to see inside. I ducked down and peered through the space as well, my hand on the dog’s neck. As my eyes accustomed, I could see a stairway that led down into darkness. I imagined all sorts of horrors and hells in that darkness, both my mother’s fears of dead souls and errant magic, and my own fears of hot lava and invisible poisons.
I was unable to move aside the thick metal panels that blocked the entrance, and I was almost relieved that I might abandon my cause and head for home. But then I saw that one of the slabs were wood, and it was rotted, and when I kicked it the panel disintegrated into splinters.
I ducked my head under a chunk of man-made stone that had thick rods of metal poking from it. The rods were rusted, and broke in my hands as I gripped them, so I grasped the edge of the stone and lowered myself down through the gap into the dark underground.
I told myself it was just like one of our caves. I turned back to my dog, a black shadow against the dim sky.
“Ringo. Come.” Ringo stared at me, then backpedaled, head ducked and swinging one way then the other, a low rumble in his throat. If a dog could look any more reluctant, I could not imagine it.
“Fine. I’m on my own?” Ringo looked away. Apparently guilt carried no weight here. “Fine.”
I stumbled down the steps towards a black corridor, my feet kicking rocks ahead of me and pluming dust from the steps. The darkness was deep and intense, and I stopped to pull one of the pitch torches from my travel bag to light it.
But then the hallway lit up on its own by means I could not guess. Long tubes on the ceiling became white and glowing after a long fit of flickering, and I stared at them until my eyes hurt. Magic, most certainly.
Finally, I looked away, seeing spots and flares, and I blinked them off. The hallway I was in had furniture that I could recognize as furniture, as finely made and intricate as much as it was rotted and decrepit. I heard Ringo padding up behind me, and I glanced back. He had a guilty look in his eyes, even as he held his head low and looked up at me through his brows.
“Glad to have you here, buddy. Have you ever seen the like? How old do you think all this is?” I stepped slowly forward, my leather soled boots crunching on bits of stone and glass. I poked my head into the first room. It was an…outhouse? Inside the house? The hole to piss through was more finely made than anything I had seen and the basin that might hold water was smoother than an eggshell and more beautifully patterned than a wreath of flowers.
The next room was more familiar. It was like the room my mother used when she was weaving leather for whips or sewing straps for harnesses. A table with a chair, and some shelves.
And a large glass window, like the one I had in my pocket, but much bigger. Black and smooth and dusty, sitting on the table on a small stand.
I stepped up to it.
On a hard drive, somewhere.
Was this a hard drive? I had no idea what a hard drive was. The map in my mind pointed to this place, but I didn’t know where to go from here. I pulled out the flat, slab-like device from my pocket and looked at it, but it was still dark. No answers there.
I set it down on the desk and bumped a small object on the table top as I did so. The desk surface lit up. A circle formed in light around my device, and the red light started blinking again on top of it.
The big dusty window on the desk activated suddenly as well, becoming bright with light and colorful moving lines, and whirs and clicks came from all around me. Towers of blackness that had been dark woke with red and green lights and little clicks like insects. I stepped backwards, overwhelmed by the hissing and whirring around me. Was this the magic my mother feared? Or were these just bigger versions of my small device?
Ringo whined into the flurry of unfamiliar sounds.
“Easy, boy,” I said distractedly, but my eyes were on the glass window on the desk again, watching the lines bounce around the screen in slow patterns I could not fathom.
I wiped the screen with my hand to see the colors more clearly, and a ripple of dust sloughed off onto the table, but the window changed. The moving lines disappeared, replaced by a plain square that demanded something of me.
What did that mean? I looked around. Large pieces of fine paper were scattered around the desk, filled with tiny complex letters, but the sheets disintegrated when I picked them up. There was a small yellow rectangle of paper stuck on top of the whirring, clicking box on the table. I bent over to look at it.
I frowned. Was that a name? Was this a hard drive?
I looked at the word written on the paper in faded ink. There was a platform of raised letters in front of the panel that demanded that I ENTER CODE, and I wondered if HADES was the code it wanted.
The small blocky device I had brought with me vibrated inside its glowing circle on the table. The tiny window on the front of it lit up, awakened again, but I ignored it for a moment.
I pushed the letters on the platform, slow and deliberate, searching out the letters that matched the yellow note. Ringo whined behind me, but I shushed him.
The rectangle disappeared, replaced by a simple message.
CODE ACCEPTED. INITIATING SEQUENCE…
I stared at it, then shrugged and waited, not knowing what I expected to happen but nothing at all was somewhat anticlimactic.
After a long moment, I felt a faint rumbling in the earth deep beneath my soles, a loud grating of metal against earth, and Ringo’s claws ticky-tacked on the hard floor as he danced with nervous paws.
“Shush, Ringo. It’s just the earth. You’ve heard this before.” But I was not sure if I believed my own words. This sound was new to me too, and it increased in volume, the distant thunder turning to a roaring avalanche.
The device on the table vibrated again, and I remembered it and quickly grabbed it, my heart racing.
The tiny window was awake and showed the same words I remembered, and the same small map that had led me here. I rubbed my thumb across the smooth surface, and the words moved, startling me. I rubbed again more slowly, and I saw I could control the movement with my thumb.
His name is in my house, on a hard drive, somewhere.
I pressed lightly, pushing those words and the map off the top of the small glowing window. There were more words below that I hadn’t seen before, back when the device had gone to sleep in my hands just after I had rescued it.
Here’s the map to the general’s bunker. There’s a house above-ground, but the bunker is underneath. The launch code he chose is on his hard drive. Somebody’s name, I think I heard him say. Maybe on a post-it note? How dumb is this? The vengeance of the world decided by a post-it note. He wanted you to destroy the bunker to prevent the launch. What a moron. That’s why I killed him. We have to get our revenge on those bastards, despite the general’s bleeding heart. Kill ‘em all. Don’t forget all those nukes they dropped on our cities. Never forget. Maybe afterwards we can sneak off and find an island to live on, if there’s anything left. Text me back when you’ve initiated the launch and let me know where you want to meet. All my best. -Sarah.
I didn’t know what any of this meant. Killing? Revenge? We couldn’t afford to take revenge on anything anymore. I hated nobody. There was nobody left to hate.
Around me, the earth shook, and the solid room I had been in quickly felt fragile. Ringo and I ran from the room as cracks appeared in the floor and the lights flickered. We made it to the hallway before the sticks of light in the ceiling shattered, showering us with bits of glass. Only the gap of sunlight at the far end that marked our entrance point gave us something to strive for.
I stumbled in the darkness over old furniture and broken tiles, but Ringo ran just ahead, finding the path easily. He turned back to look at me, barking once, twice. Dust filled my eyes, but I pressed on. I closed my eyes, grabbing Ringo’s fur as he pulled me to the surface.
I blinked. The air was filled with dust and whirling embers. I climbed atop the ruined house, looking for the source.
In the distance, across flat fields, holes in the earth opened up. Terrible grinding noises accompanied them, and the openings puffed out dust and debris as sand fell into them.
Was this the magic my mother spoke of? Is this why we no longer buried our dead in the earth? I fell to my knees, watching the earth slide apart to reveal dark holes in the plains. Steam or smoke rose from the holes. Something terrible was going to come out of them, and I dreaded what I might see. What I had done.
Ringo sat on his haunches at my side, whining. I pulled him close.
The device in my hand vibrated, and I only just realized I was still clutching it in my sweaty fingers. I looked at it. The screen was glowing with new words.
And a small square underneath it.
Abort…revenge? If this is what revenge looked like and felt like…yes. I wanted no part of it. I touched the word with my finger. After a moment, Ringo stopped whining. I hugged him close, and we both watched the holes in the earth slowly close up again as the smoke dissipated and blew away.
It was a very long time before I stood again, and Ringo got up as well, looking at me with his trusting eyes, waiting for my lead. We stared out at the silent plains and whatever monsters they kept hidden. Perhaps the earth held other secrets that were not for revenge or killing. Perhaps there were things that would help my mother and the others that struggled to survive in our tiny, moist grotto in the earth. Those were all discoveries to come on the long road ahead.
I hopped down from the crumbling house, Ringo at my side.
“Come with me, Ringo. Let’s see if we can find something more useful.”