On the beach Short fiction

Short fiction

First published in Isnot Magazine | 2007

“It’s the perfect place for it.”

Ava Gardner on shooting a film about the end of the world in Melbourne, Australia

You have no clue who Ava Gardner is, or Gregory Peck or Fred Astaire, and if this is Melbourne it’s a mystery to you, whoever you might be. All you know is that sand sits, inert, to your left and right, and that the sun is hanging low and under it all colours flinch backwards towards grey. Your feet are the bottom-edge of your frame and the thin strip of horizon marks the top. Outside of this, for all you know, there is nothing.

You’re waiting for news to wash up from what’s left of the world.

History books never make it. Hardcovers sink under their own weight. Poetry disintegrates and fine art is anchored to the ocean floor by heavy frames and the leftover chunks of museum walls. Dusty academia would have been the first to burn: you have no idea that Derrida said all literature belongs to the nuclear epoch – because there could always be the total destruction of all writing, for all time – and you have no idea that he was wrong.

You gently separate another tattered comic book from the wet clutch of sand.

You used to sort the debris by type. 

To your west went all the issues that were once shiny and slick, thirty pages a piece, with garish colour buried deep enough salt water couldn’t bleach it free. The men inside look well-fed and perfectly bodied and almost never smile.

East, the pile was twice the size. Each set of staples holding together a hundred pages filled with cheap black dotting printed on yellow paper. Inside there’s mostly teenagers with enormous eyes engaged in action and romance and anything else you could imagine.

The speech bubbles may use different symbols, but they’re all equally meaningless to you. English or Japanese or the onomatopoeic sounds effects that should read like a combination of the two… it doesn’t matter. You sorted and catalogued them into different stacks and left them to dry like bonfire-wood but you knew there was a missing piece to your sodden research.

Comic book traditions can be daunting. An outsider can pick up a single issue with a new superhero on the cover under a bold “#1 Issue!” and still be drowned in fifty years of backstory. Some single Japanese storylines have run near-decades and can stagger an entire bookshelf under their art. And then there’s shared universes, and guest-stars, and intercompany crossovers…

You don’t know any of this so you approach them without trivia or fear. You’re meant to read one stack left to right, and the other, right to left, but it occurs to you that you’ll never get the whole story until you shuffle them together. They’re staked out with polished stones, all along the beach, and you’ve ventriloquised your own words to fill the balloons with dialogue. You’ve improvised another long-standing comic book institution…

Your very own, rare and valuable, bumper-edition Super Special: the untold story of these two universes coming together in battle, and what it did to the rest of the world.

The first page you’ve chosen is a splash page.

It’s almost all white.

The only ink it carries spells a name you can’t read and a date you can’t compute.

Hiroshima, August 6th, 1945.

That white light is composed of all but a fraction of the energy released in the blast, and it was some kind of miracle that even to a particular young girl, blind since birth, it appeared as a tiny first flicker of candlelight. Her subsequent adventures have a sense of folklore about them: she wanders the country, barefoot and suffering silently, following the radioactive glimmering when it plucks at her dead optic nerve and helping survivors out of danger, only to be drawn back towards the light once more, sometimes trying to cup it in her hands.

On the other side of the planet, scientists send their wives from the room and spread satellite photographs across the kitchen table, studying the first moments of the Hiroshima blast when each common object took up smoking. Newspapers, shopping lists, birth certificates, it doesn’t matter; everything catches fire and is, in turn, caught clearly doing so by inhuman shutter speeds. Individual dots and sparkles, reproducing like bacteria, coalescing into a firestorm… it gives ideas to men like these. Think! Mushroom clouds look good in history books, but what about smaller and more delicate detonations? Imagine only the hand-shake arms of important diplomats bursting into flames! Or the eyes of dedicated map-makers! Or the lips of brass sections of patriotic bands! Inspiration strikes so hard these scientists’ teeth crack their well-worn pipes, and glowing tobacco flecks fall to the maps below…

Meanwhile the first survivors gather together, as survivors do. They find structures still standing, which could never replace their homes, and form new families that could never make up for those they have lost. None shed a tear. None find nightmares waiting in snatched moments of sleep. They are hibakusha: the “receivers of the bomb.” It is in sleep that they make their unconscious retaliatory strike. Even the darkness of dreams is brightly lit for the survivors, surrounded by nothingness, meeting one another and nodding silent greetings. Where are their nightmares? An unexpected voodoo manages to find the generals responsible for the final strike-orders, and when they’re next sleeping, it secrets the hibakusha nightmares away under their pillows.

One physicist has been dreaming differently. The crude blueprints stirred in him may have been met with derision during budget meetings, but the dream returned, every night, and he was still dreaming it the night his weary heart finally ceased to drum. The dream: a shining bomb that would teleport all in its blast-radius to a predetermined location; enemy territory reappearing in a reverse-blast; that same pure, white light, becoming rubble and gore, perfectly assembling itself into gothic architecture and autumn leaves and a sea of civilians; men, women and children who turn to the old physicist and, as one, thank him.

There’s a peculiar new meeting of men and machines above the Pacific ocean. A billionaire inventor with a secret alcohol problem is flying in prototype battle-armour of his own design; a twelve year old boy with wide, wise eyes is piloting something similar but with a streamlined, organic design – it’s only his third flight since the biomechanical suit chose him from a national search for compatible nervous systems. They circle one another in a lazy hover and, on three, power down weapons systems and begin to talk… about dealing with the military, and industrial design, and the way retinal displays leave residual ghost-green numbers that stop them both sleeping. Days later, readying for war, the teen wonders why his suit chose him when he didn’t build it and doesn’t deserve it, and the inventor wants to know why after all his work, his armour has no heart to it, and remains a collection of parts.

Some survivors aren’t interested in patriotism. They’ve been ignoring emergency sirens in the dead zones and looting what’s left. The surprise? It’s not illegal drugs or drag-racing but simple aspirin that ends them. Something about the half-life changed something in the pills, and they change those that take them. Their veins fill like firehoses of blood and their arms extend, muscles pop, and leather jackets split like skin on their backs. Once contained, these youths are cattle-prodded into cargo planes and flown low over the ocean until dropped into densely-populated enemy territory… and they hit the ground grinning, picking asphalt from between their teeth, the foreign syllables of their names sounding out in shockwaves.

It’s excuse for a shocking military response: fallout isn’t just for the enemy. Soldiers happily volunteer for exposure to new kinds of energy from new kinds of atoms. In a snap, men can rend steel with thumb and forefinger, and the unexpected success-rate soon makes the procedure compulsory for all army personnel.  It’s not enough. Newspapers at the time start showing odd headlines: random storms of cosmic rays, and lightning strikes near untested chemicals, and radioactive insects biting nerdy teens – and other carefully-executed accidents besides – and soon enough, they can all fly. The skylines of major cities are ringed with new kinds of heroes, waiting for the right moment to spout a witty quip and attack without fear.

Everyone is wearing white on the other side of the world. It’s by governmental decree. Sheer numbers and inexplicable powers of the enemy mean all that’s left is to petition the sun itself for assistance. Wandering souls of babies taken too soon are summoned by séance and fired heavenward as ectoplasm. Who knows what was said, if tiny voices were heard, or if the temperature slightly cooled? Only the final effect is felt. And if the light of a single nuclear explosion is the equivalent of more than six hundred noonday suns in the harshest desert? It’s no surprise our own star was jealous, and that the light shone down on the enemy hemisphere was suddenly hard, and painful, and fatal in degrees. But the moon was jealous, too: even wearing white to reflect the moonlight, its second-hand rays were enough to reignite old flames around Hiroshima, long thought dead, now spreading fast.

History used to tell us that wars are not won with machines that turn men to corpses. The responsible minds are kept safe, locked in luxurious underground bunkers, protected by earth and steel and recycled air. This is how you win a war: the amnesia bomb. They fell in silence and detonated more quietly still. Was it coincidence that they were launched on the anniversary of the war’s first strike? Soon no one could remember the date to ask. In fact, when one bomb was found that had failed to detonate, it took every remaining memory of every civilian hazily able to recall high school science to puzzle out its function. And in the time it took to recreate a dozen of the devices and ready them for launch, no one remembered what these rockets were, or what they were supposed to do. Luckily, there was only a single red button that begged to be pushed.

That’s how you think it might have happened, anyway.

You could jumble these pages you’ve arranged and come up with something different, and you have already, dragging dozens of variations through this sand. This beach: you don’t remember anything else – just this horizon, this shore – but you can tell the tides are rising because your frame of reference is steadily shrinking from the bottom up.

It brings more individual issues with it. They’ve fought through oceans to clog your shoreline, but you no longer stockpile them. You stand and watch them sort themselves instead, using the smallest waves to ebb and fold and creep closer. It doesn’t really matter. You’ve decided the first page will always be that splash of nothing but white…

And the final page you’ve picked is wordless and black.

It’s the bottom of a sea of ink that’s too thick and filthy to be drawn.

That never changes.

All the paper and ash and mouldering debris that fills the ocean’s floor isn’t what is driving up sea-level. There’s never been enough words for that. Down there is the enormous thing you’ve seen hints and whispers of round the margins of your reading, sleeping between the panels and staples…

It’s awake. It must be. Nothing could sleep through all those smashed atoms. It’s incapable of forgetting, too, running on ancient lizard instincts as much part of it as its tail. It’s already been once around the world, feeling no human urge to name the cities under its feet, and now it’s crushing everything else deep into the sea-bed.

To think: each scale is the fused, football-field glass of a single ground zero.

It has no comprehension of Ava Gardner or Peck or Astaire or Melbourne or you.

It’s become the new moon and the tides come ahead of it as warning.

You decide to turn inland and walk away from the water. It’s nothing but intuition, but you think this last survivor might be coming for warm, prehistoric rocks, and dry and open spaces bigger than any human frame, and maybe there’ll be eggs, splitting down the centre and letting something like life shine out.

The comic books you leave for the waves to collect.