Continuity by Matt Zandstra

Monday, October 18, 2021
In Matt Zandstra's post-apocalyptic tale, two struggling farm boys discover a scrap of ancient technology that can talk to them, and try to sell it without being discovered. 

Here is how my brother and me killed all those people.

It started with the landslides. Or, really, on the day after, when the rains had cleared. Our house sits safe on the rocky side of the hill, the last in a row of ruins. But we farm a few terraces half a turn round where the land is green and lush. Or it was. Pasture and crops had slumped in the night turning whole sections of the slope to slurry.

Larry and I dragged the harvest cart round to see what we could salvage. We looked down at our fields from the path. Where there should have been rows of beets and tomatoes and beans and potatoes was just a slick of mud and broken up grass and bits of fence. It was as if the world had melted over our lives and smothered everything. We must have stared at the mess for ten minutes before Larry said, "Well, damn." Only he used another word.

I still thought of the land as Dad's really. He was a natural farmer. He understood the land and he loved it. Not like me and Larry. After Dad went, we stuck around for Mum - to help her and so as not to leave her alone. And, after that, we stayed because - well, where else would we go? We are not natural farmers. We have no feel for it. To us, the land is cruel and tricksy. But we knew enough not to starve. Until that morning.

I said, "What's that?" A little way down, there was a hollow, scooped out during the slide and not filled in from above. Inside it, I could see something glinting bright.

"Could be scrap, I suppose." Larry said without much enthusiasm.

We tethered our mule, Madonna, to a fence post and pulled a shovel and a fork from the cart. We picked our way through muck and rubble down to the dip. As we approached, I could see that the object wasn't the usual salvage. Most of that came from houses and cars. This was... shinier. A serrated rip of silver pointed up at the sky like a ragged finger.

"It's tech!" I said.

"It's only a fragment," said Larry.

But we both set to digging anyway and soon uncovered a slab of metal. It was as about as long as a cow's leg but wider. It was broken and torn on one end with a mess of exposed wires and half-smashed components poking out. At the other end, it closed off clean - snubbed and rounded. All that would have been exciting enough. It was the blinking orange light that crowned it, though. This wasn't just tech. It was live tech.

We watched the light flashing on and off for a good while.

"What do you think it is?" I said.

"Well I don't know, do I?" said Larry. Not knowing stuff made Larry angry. "It probably dropped off something. An airplane, most likely."

I had seen planes in movies and this didn't look like any of those. But there used to be lots of types of everything and, besides, when stuff blew apart it ended up looking different from how it ought. Like us. We were blown out of the insides of how things were. I just nodded and shrugged at the same time.

"Well, help me, then," he said.

It was lucky we had the tools with us because part of the jagged section was hooked under some roots and tangled up in barbed wire. Eventually we had it all uncovered and I could see that it had been ripped off something bigger, no question.

"What are we going to do with it?"

Larry looked as if he was about to snap at me but then his face settled in to a thinking expression. "We won't get much for it round here," he said. "I reckon we need to take it to Harl. Stanley wants active tech. Give me a hand."

The object felt warm to the touch - as if it had been lying in the sun. It was heavy as anything and slippery too with the mud slime. But that's not why I dropped my end. I dropped it because the thing spoke to me. We were inches from the back of the harvest cart when it said something like, "Bonjor."

"Bastard!" I yelled and I leapt back as if had it had shocked me. With the wrench of my end falling, Larry let go and the thing landed on his foot, jaggedy parts downward. And he was yelling too then and I was getting sorry and ready to run and the device was still talking.

"Olla," it said. And, "Goody Ta."

"Can you hear that?" I said. But Larry was still bellowing and cursing. He'd crouched down and he was examining his boot.

"Chow, sala laykum, binas diss."

That did it - Larry wriggled back and looked at the thing as if it were red hot. "What the?"

"I told you!" I said, though I hadn't really. "It's speaking."

And then it said, "Hhhhello." Not like we talk at all but beginning with lots of H.

"Hello," I said back. "Hello, thing."

"Dialect unknown," it said like it was talking to itself. I guess that might have got to be a habit if it was buried for a long time.

"Shit," said Larry.

"Don't start again," I said, all prim like Ma - though she could swear plenty when the mood took her.

"No. Look." He nodded up at the road. And I saw a figure approaching about half a mile out. From the red pack and little dot of black hair, I could tell it was Nazeem.

"Where is this?" said the thing in its weirdy accent - even worse than out-of-district people.

"Get it hid," said Larry.


"If he sees it... he'll tell all sorts. Cover it up."

"I am... lost," said the object. I don't know if it sounded sad or if I made it sound sad in my head because being lost is such a melancholy state to find yourself in.

We cast about for something to hide it with. There was an old tarp in the debris and Larry grabbed it. By then, Nazeem had made good progress and Larry said, "just get it covered. I'll go up and speak to him."

Nazeem shouted down, "Hello there!"

"Hhhello," said the thing.

"Shh," I said, though of course he'd not have heard it.

"Hi," called Larry, still approaching.

"Need a hand?"

"No, we got it thanks."

"What, though? What's that?" Nazeem nodded down at me.

I waved.

"We rescued some potatoes and some scrap. Something off a car."

And then they were close enough to talk without shouting so I just stood in front of the thing and smiled like an idiot. I grinned and grinned holding myself awkward and still. At last, Nazeem turned away and Larry clapped him on the back. But his face was hard as he walked down towards me.

"We've got to get it away from here," he said.

It took us well over an hour to get the device up to the path. It was still chatting to us but it wasn't saying much different than before. Lots of hhhhello. I liked its voice. Maybe because it sounded like a woman and I missed that since Ma died. After we finally heaved it onto the cart, I took a moment and looked back down at the field. Perhaps we could straighten it up and replant - but not for a season or two and, even then, we'd need to hire someone with a tractor to come and smooth it all over. And what could we trade for that? So I supposed we'd struck it lucky. Kind of.

"You get to the freeway," Larry said. "I'll head back and pick up Cindy and some supplies."

Cindy is the horse. More a pony really, but she's smart and can cover most ground real fast.

"Right now?" I said. I was surprised. The sun was already up high and we'd not make much progress before we had to set camp. It would be better to leave at dawn.

"That bastard knows something's up. He's going to tell people."

"He tells everyone everything," I said. "That's Nazeem."

"No. People." said Larry, as if that cleared it up.

In the end, I shrugged and led Madonna off down the track.

"And don't touch it." Larry said to my back. "It's tech and it's awake. You don't know what it will do."

I just raised my arm and walked onward.

The path carries on a way and then joins Primrose Street. Primrose winds down the hill so I was worried we'd hit another slide. It looked just the same as always though. Overgrown and crumbly with falling down hollow houses.

At last, we reached the turn and joined Sandringham Road.

To pass the time, I talked back to the thing. When it said, Hhhello, I said, "Hello," back. And it got to be like a game. Like table tennis or something. If I missed a shot and said nothing, it would wait for a while and shoot a serve with a new Hhhello.

I figured it was broken - but it was nice to hear its voice. Though hearing wasn't quite right. It seemed like sound for sure. But it was close in - as if she was right by my ear when she spoke instead of rattling along on the old truck bed.

And then she said, "What about this?"

I said, "What about it?" before I even realised things had changed.

"Yes," she said. "That's better, isn't it?"

"I suppose so," I said. Probably, in the old days, people talked to objects all the time. Probably they got up in the morning and chattered away to their coffee cups. Argued with the spoon. But it seemed weird to me, conversing with scrap metal. We were on Longbridge by then, passing by the old big box stores. "My name is Philip," I said to be polite.

"What is the date, Philip?" she said.

"I don't really know dates," I said. "It's spring."

"What is the year?"

"They'll tell you. They do lots of stuff with years at the university."

Madonna farted. We walked on in silence for a little while.

Something made me look back and I could see the dot of Larry behind us. A horsey distant smudge.

"Where is university?" she said.

"If you're from the war, then it's over a hundred years from the last date you remember," I said. I do that a lot. Return to old parts of a conversation to fill things in. It drives Larry crazy.

"Where is university?" she repeated.

"It's where we're going. It's in Harl. We sell potatoes to Stanley. He's the professor." I knew as soon as I said it that this was going raise even more questions so I was kind of pleased when Larry appeared with a great clattering of hooves and huffing of horse, filling up the space around us with his noise and just the bigness of him.

"No trouble?" he said, dismounting. He unslung his backpack and lead Cindy to the verge for a chew at the grass.

"She's talking more," I said.


"Only kind of in the head."

He frowned and opened his mouth - probably to tell me I'm full of shit.

"Where is Harl?" the gizmo said.

"Jesus," said Larry.

"See?" I said. "And she learned our language real fast."

"We are going to be rich," Larry said. He tethered Cindy up to the back of the cart and we set out again. "I got knives, he said, rummaging through his pack. "You'd better wear one."

I don't like knives. It must have shown in my face, because then he said, "I don't care, Phil. You know all about this road."

He did not mean the road we were stood on right then. That road was no problem, though it needed clearing once or twice a year when the brambles blocked it. We were half a mile from the freeway. And stuff happened on the freeway. I took the knife and slipped it into my belt.

I like the on-ramp. It curves down into the road gully in a banking kind of spiral. It makes me think of how it must have felt to swing round in a fast car and then off faster - off wherever you liked for thousands of miles.

And then we were on the straight - twenty-five miles to Harl, clear except where the road was broken by bombing and washed away. That part is dicey. So we settled into a rhythm then and walked 'til dark. There wasn't room for both of us on the cart with the gizmo and, anyway, you can't steer from up there, so we took it in turns leading and riding.

The device did not speak again that afternoon even though I tried it every now and then. Freeway land is mostly the same - banks of wild grass growing high as your head, the occasional stretch of fencing, half broken down. You can't relax, though, because of the potholes - some of them big enough to swallow both wheels.

"What do you think it is?" I said to Larry.

He shrugged but he'd plainly thought about it because then he said, "They had spy drones flying around all over. Probably one of those."

"Whose side?" I said.

He shrugged. "What does it matter? They were all as bad as each other, weren't they?"

"I suppose so."

"But listen, Philip. Don't touch it. You understand?"

"Why not?"

"Because it is not a good thing. It is not in the world for good."

We made camp a little after that. We pulled off the road a little ways and built a fire as soon as it was dark enough to hide the smoke. Larry had brought a couple of potatoes and carrots and some dried beef. It made a half-decent stew.

It was when we were finishing off and I was getting a happy feeling from the fire and my full belly that she spoke again.

"Where is Harl?" she said.

"Hello, you," I said. "I'll tell you if you tell me your name."

"Shut up, Philip," said Larry.

"I don't see the harm. It's where we're going anyway. It's not like she won't find out."

He couldn't really argue with that.

"My name," said the gizmo. Her voice seemed even closer with the darkness all around us. It made me think of Ma, when she told us stories at night with the critters chirping and the smell of woodsmoke and grasses. "I was... I was..."

"It's half-broken," said Larry.

"Well, let's call her Tess," I said.

"Don't call her - it - anything. It's not a pet."

"Can I call you Tess?" Tess sounded a bit like tech. There was a girl in our town I liked named Tess a long time ago. I think her parents moved on. People often try their luck in other places.

"Where is Harl?" she said.

I took that as permission to call her Tess, so fair was fair. "We're on this road for another day. It runs pretty straight."

"Is Harl... is it Harlow?"

"It's Harl, Tess. Least that's what we call it."

Larry put a branch on the fire and poked at the hot part to get it riled up. "It was Harlow," he said. "Just no-one calls it that now."

"Well that's a thing," I said. "I never knew that. I guess names change all the time."

"Harl is not Harlow," Larry said to Tess. "Everything is different now."

I laughed. "Don't let Stanley hear you say that."

"Stanley's living in a dreamland."

"Stanley's making the university in Harl," I explained. "He says he's going to rebuild everything."


I stretched out as close as I could safely get to the fire. "Maybe. But he's the one'll probably pay us for Tess. So..."

And neither of them had an answer for that.

It rained in the night, so me and Larry ended up under the cart. We got wet anyhow because the wind blew the water on us and because damp seeped up from the soil and through our clothes. At least it got us moving early. I shivered for a good hour before the sun came fully up and dried us off.

By mid-morning, I was too hot again and I almost missed the chill. I tried to talk to Larry but he was twitchy and only spoke a word or two in reply. He kept on glancing back. But all there was to see was the freeway long and shimmering and lazy behind us through the hills.

Tess had a talkative moment around lunchtime. "It has been one hundred and twenty-three years," she said.

"Woah, Tess," I said, impressed, "how did you work that out?"

"I asked the sun," she said.

"She's magic," I said to Larry.

"Don't be a numbskull," he said.

"She asked the sun. Either she's magic or she's mad."

"It's just not got the lingo, that's all. It did science with the sun. Like tracking the way it moves or sunspots or something."

"What are sunspots?"

"I dunno. Something in a movie."

I just don't get the difference between science and magic and church. Once, I asked the reverend if god was magic and I thought he'd throw me out the church. And Stanley got real agitated when I mentioned some ideas I had about science and the holy ghost. "Science is verifiable," he said. "You can confirm your findings. God is a conman." I reckon it really is all the same, just everyone thinks they have the right angle on it.

Larry took Cindy for what he called a reconnoitre - which means a bit of a ride.

Tess said. "I need more information. Clear the exposed sensor panel, please."

I was up on the cart right then because Madonna had decided to walk without persuasion, beyond the occasional poke with a stick. So I took a look at Tess, all covered up under the tarp. It must have been like being blindfolded. Dad was blind when he died and that was the saddest thing because he was a reader and he missed it worse than a chopped off arm, the reading. Tess was pretty clever if she could talk to the sun from inside a layer of plastic. "Which end is it?" I said. Mostly, I was just pleased to be talking with her.

"Uncover the unit's lower quadrant."

"The lower what now?"

I swear I heard her sigh. That made me smile. People always get frustrated with me because I take a while. If she was sighing then she was sort of people, wasn't she?

"The end near you."

"See? You can make sense if you try," I said.

It's not really safe to leave Madonna completely unattended. She gets ideas. But I didn't want to park up so I risked it. I got myself into the middle of the cart and worked on the tarp. It was tucked under Tess's bulk so I had to roll her and pull. With the movement of the cart and the lack of space, it was hard going. Finally, though, I got the sheet pulled up. There was a kind of lowered area - like there might have been a hatch over it once - and all sorts of gubbins around there. Buttons and a little laptop screen-y thing.

"Is that it?"

"That's it."

"Is it better?"

"Can you clear the soil from the sensors?"

Well I didn't know what a sensor was but I could easily see the soil. I'd have called it muck and general shit. I knelt down and spat on my t-shirt, then I rubbed it over the panel area.


Of course, it was Larry.

I looked up at him guiltily. "I was just..."

"You were touching it, that's what! What did I say?"


"What did I say?"

"'Don't touch it.' But she couldn't see, Larry. She wants to see."

"You don't know what it wants. Get down from there."

I didn't think that Larry should be ordering me about like that. I didn't think so at all. But neither did I feel like arguing about it right then. So I gave Tess a little pat and hopped down. By then we were heading towards the verge and the tasty grass. I hurried round to Madonna's bridle and straightened us out.

"You remember Lash Dale?" Larry said later.

I had been ignoring him for a while. There are ghosts everywhere. In the flash shadows on walls, in old toys, in the photographs still hanging on half-demolished walls. Still, Lash Dale was different. Lash Dale made new ghosts.

"What about it," I said, still sulky.

"You know how they died?"

"No-one does." It happened when I was a baby. The entire town wiped out in the course of a single day. From hundreds of people living their lives to a field of corpses in hours. And that was not the end of it. For years afterwards, no-one survived a visit there - no matter how fleeting. They'd last out just long enough to pass on reports of families of skeletons at their lunch tables, of weavers dead at their looms and, worst of all, rows of children at their schoolhouse desks.

"Well we do now. They dug something up. Some kind of buried tech. They took it to their canteen and they were tampering with it. There were wrenches and screwdrivers strewn around and they had pried the top off this thing.

"We shouldn't have dug up Tess, then," I said, alarmed.

"Probably not," he admitted, "but it was that or maybe starve. So we're taking it to Stanley - he knows what he's doing. And that's why I'm telling you. Don't touch her - it."

I looked at Tess lying half-uncovered on the cart. I wanted to pull the blanket back over her. Also, I didn't want to go near her ever again. "Was it like Tess? This thing?" I said.

Larry shook his head. "Stanley said it was a canister. Like a bucket but with lid fixed on the top. But the point is this. The war never ended. We're still fighting the war."

"Of course we're not. I'm not fighting anything."

"It goes quiet... Sometimes for years. But in the end, it starts up again. So don't help it. Leave the tech alone, OK?"

I nodded seriously. Larry was not the boss of me - even though he liked to think he was. But I used to dream about that school room - the row upon row of child skeletons listening forever to a corpse teacher. I shuddered.

They came for us where the road is broken.

The bombing took out a full half mile, and what's there now is not much more than a boggy track, old craters filled in with gravel and mud. Towards the end of the damaged zone, a wood has grown up. Not tall old wide-spaced oaks but tangled-up saplings and vines and brambles and spiky clouds of nettles. Even though they're young, the trees are high enough to cover over the way in summer.

When we left the sun behind, Tess said, "Philip?"

I said, "What, Tess?"

"I think there are people here."

I expected Larry to laugh at her. I kind of wanted him to, really. Instead, he narrowed his eyes and said, "Where?"

I looked about wildly. All I could see were the ferns, the trees and boggy ground to each side.

"Ahead," she said just as four men stepped onto the road, blocking our way. "And behind."

I wheeled and saw two more. They all wore old city rags, t-shirts and jeans, the way that some of the gangs do - trying to look like something out of a tablet flick.

"Well now," said Larry. "Hello."

One of the men nodded back. He was old - about Dad's age when he died - wiry and grimed.

"They're not going to let us through," I said softly.

Larry just rested his hand on his knife hilt and led Madonna onward.

The gang boys showed no sign of standing aside.

We were getting closer and closer and the violence smelled like metal on a hot day. Larry stopped nose to nose with the leader who hadn't moved.

He regarded Larry with this easy grin on him - only a couple of teeth left.

"How about you move?" said Larry.

"How about you give us that?" said the leader, nodding at the cart. He had a lispy voice, soft-sounding. "This is our road."

Larry cocked his head a bit to one side as if he was thinking. "I've not seen you on it before." While he looked at the leader one of the boys was edged round him. As if moving slowly made him invisible.

"Then I guess you owe us extra for the free passes," said the old man.

Larry nodded like this seemed reasonable and then his hand shot out to the side. It was only as it came back I saw the blade in his grip, glinting and slicked red and the creeping boy fell, wrapping himself over a gush of dark blood.

That was the trigger. All of them leapt at Larry.

As I stepped up to help him, a figure hurtled out from the wood. A cudgel smacked into my temple. Everything fell away. The ground loomed up to drown me in mud and leaf mould. Above me, suddenly distant, the scuffling and shouting continued.

A cry of triumph. A moment's pause.

"Not yet," warned the leader. "We might need them."

I heard fists hitting flesh. A groan. Then nothing at all.

I came halfway back to myself with leaves and muck pressing at my face. Across the path, Larry lay motionless in a beaten curl. The stabbed boy sat near me leaning back against a tree. He looked bad, blood soaking his shirt, his skin grey. None of his friends was paying him much mind. Instead, they had led Cindy away and tethered her farther along the road so that they could all gather round the cart and gawk at Tess.

"We'll have to take it up country," the leader said. "No-one in Harl will buy from one of us."

"Unless we broked it up," said one of the boys.

"We'd get less," said another.

"Better than lugging it all the way to Menton."

Larry groaned and they all turned to him.

"Well, looks like there's not much good he can do us," the leader said. "Let's get him sorted first."

They advanced on Larry. Before they could take more than a couple of steps, though, he jumped up and hared off faster than I've ever seen him run. It was almost funny - the stupid look of them - but they were quick after him, leaving me and the stuck boy behind. The violence they had done had left me half-dazed, my mind bumping along the gravel mud road with the creepers and ferns coming up through it and the smell of earth and vegetable rot. I could just lie there a little longer, I thought.

The boy - and he was only a boy really - slumped over then so that we were looking eye to eye. He was bleeding out and along with his blood his soul seeped away in front of me.

A shout from the wood, "There!" and a great rustling and trampling. More shouts. Larry must have doubled back, hoping maybe to grab me or maybe just dodging about.

My mother called me. "Philip," she said.

Beside me, the boy's eyes were open and he had stopped breathing. He had joined his own mother now.


"What?" I said it with irritation - the way I used to when she woke me for school. Except - the realisation hit me like winter well water - my mother was gone. It was Tess's voice, calm and close. I found myself struggling to sit up before I even thought about it. "What?" I said again.

"I can help. But you have to help me first," she said.

"Help you?"

"There's a panel. On the side of my unit."

And a perfect chunk of tech appeared floating impossibly in front of me. It was Tess, but also part of a larger object. I could see that she had once jutted out under a pair of swept back wings. The vision was about the size of an apple at first, but it rolled and enlarged so that, pretty soon, a section of Tess lay close up to my eyes with a narrow panel picked out in a glowing red outline.

Larry burst through the leaves. He still held his knife and he was spattered all over with blood - though whether it was his or someone else's I could not tell.

"You need to do it now, Philip."

Three men followed close on and fanned out around him. I pulled myself carefully to my feet, still dizzy and weak. I crawled up onto the cart. The men called to one another, sounding cheerful about it. They might have been at the end a schoolyard chase. I could not uncover Tess all the way - the tarp was wrapped around under her. I yanked at it, working it upward.

"Aha!" a man cried.

Larry danced into view, a new gash visible on his arm. They were closing in, all of them, arms held wide, darting in with little knife swipes.

At last I cleared the panel. "I can see it," I muttered.

I found an impression in the metal, hooked my finger under it and yanked. After some resistance, a little hatch swung up, revealing a recessed area in which nestled a shiny patch of glass and, underneath that, numbered keys.

"Type in these numbers. Four..."

I looked at panel, half-frozen. In my mind, Larry was saying, whatever you do, don't touch it. But here and now he would die if I didn't get help. Tess was the only help I had.


The leader returned from the wood, slower than the rest and wheezing a bit after the chase. "Just finish him," he said. "We haven't - hello!"

And I knew that he had spotted me.

I can't read letters well but my numbers are good. I found the four and pressed it. "Six." I pressed that. And then five and nine. A cruel grip on my ankle. I kicked back with my free foot, landing awkwardly on cushioned bone.

"Come on," the leader said behind me, sounding as cheerful as his men. "Let's be having you." He lunged and renewed his hold. I drove my boot at him again but he retained his hold, pulling me away from Tess. Now that he had me closer, though, I had better range too and I ground my heel into his his cheek. He cursed and let me go. I scrabbled further along the well of the cart.

"Eight, four," said Tess.

I hit the keys.

"Right," the leader said, coming for me again, much less playful now.

"Now, enter," said Tess.

Enter. Enter? What did that mean? For a stupid moment I thought she wanted me to climb in somewhere. But then I saw that one of the buttons had lit up. It showed a picture of a downward-swooping arrow. Enter. The leader's hand closed again upon my ankle. I thumbed the symbol. The little screen glowed soft blue and words appeared, flowing fast like water in a channel. Then, abruptly, they disappeared, replaced by a single set of red characters.

The bottom of the cart slipped hard under me and I arrived beneath the leader - sour sweat and rotten teeth and a knife pressing, almost gently, at my belly. He grinned nastily as I froze, tensing for the stick and slice.

And then... we all... stopped.

The leader's grasp on me slackened. The shouts of murder play fell away. For a second, we all just waited. There was a faint breeze, shushing quite loud up in the leaves like water before it boils. For the first time, I noticed birds singing.

"Oh." said the leader. "No."

Free now, I scootched up to the far end of the cart, looking around for something I might use as a weapon. But he was no longer interested in me. His face had taken on an expression of wonder and fear. The blade fell from his hand and clattered to the truck bed. "No. Please," he said. He backed his way off the cart and turned, making as if to run. But the nightmare found him. I could tell because of the way he contorted, twisting his body to hide from blows I could not see. He fell to the ground. He rolled and writhed and wailed as if attempting to put out flames or crush biting things.

His voice was joined by others, all reedy with panic and horror. I scrabbled down, landing amidst the gang. They were no threat to me, though. Not anymore. One had run a little way down the path before falling and thrashing. Another slapped himself and sobbed. A third just sat beside my brother's fallen form, rocking and humming. Several others wept silently, lost in whatever poison Tess had shared with them.

I launched myself over to Larry. "Are you OK?"

He lay at the centre of the horrorstruck band. He was covered in blood, bruises already coming up on his face. There was a deep gash on his arm. He blinked and I thought for a moment that he was in the grip of their terror. "I... what the...?" His voice came out thick through his swollen mouth. He sat up on one elbow with difficulty. "I'm alright."

The closest man rocked and rocked, tears streaming down his face.

"What's going on?" Larry said, with a kind of wonder.

"I'm sorry, Larry," I said. "Tess asked me to press buttons."

He snorted and staggered to his feet. "I guess you made the call, Philip," he said. He nearly fell then, overcome by a wave of pain or dizziness. "Sometimes you gotta change the rules. That's flexible."

Larry liked rules and he liked flexible. Trouble is, the rule for flexible - was flexible, and sometimes it didn't apply.

"We should get out of here," I said.

He retrieved a knife from the belt of the rocking bandit. "Let's just finish up."

The leader had recovered enough to begin to crawl. I could see by his face, though, that he remained deep in his madness. His eyes were wide and he muttered to himself as he moved.

Still a little dazed, Larry wandered over and watched the man inch along.

I was calculating how far ahead we could get and whether we might reach Harl before the bandits recovered when Larry crouched, grabbed a handful of the leader's hair and dragged his head back hard. I caught a glimpse of the man's eyes - the craziness sprayed off him like water from a dropped hose. Larry cut his throat with the same easy slice he used on goats.

I said, "wait!" but without much force. Larry did not stand over the hot gush of the man's blood. He just released his grip and stalked back round to the next man.

"Larry, don't," I said. "We can make it."

He stopped and turned. "I've started now. You started too - with Te... with the tech. Even if we got to Harl before them, they might talk about what that thing did. No-one's going to buy the kind of tech that does this to people." He waggled his knife at a shivering bandit beneath him. "Nope. Either they end our world..." He pulled back the man's head, sliced his throat. "Or we end theirs." He stood for a moment over the gurgling dying man. I looked away to Madonna who had been happily munching on roadside grass throughout the whole thing.

I heard Larry move on. "Come here, goddamn you," he muttered. "There!"

I did not turn round.

Afterwards, I helped him drag the bodies off the path and into the brambles and ferns. On the road, there was little evidence that anything had happened. Then, only a few minutes later, we were back out in the sun.

The highway curved and then, at last, we saw the first sign for Harl. I could not read it, of course, but I know H and I always recognise the flower picture that someone sprayed there years ago.

Larry was still bleeding but he shrugged away when I tried to look. It would need cleaning and binding. Maybe stitches - which Ma taught me. "Time enough when we get there," he said.

We walked on. The sun was high but I knew it would be tough to make it in inside the gate before sundown. It seemed strange that nothing was strange, with the beasts as placid as ever, the cart rocking and rumbling and getting set in the wrong direction. When I closed my eyes, I saw the numbers and letters on Tess's patch of glass - the little trickly green ones and, especially, the big red figures at the end.

"Listen Larry. I been thinking," I said.

"Uh oh," said Larry. "Three scariest words I can imagine."

We'd reached the top of the final hill and there was Harl below - farther than it looked but tucked away neat over the river, the rotten neighbourhoods on the outside, already giving over to green and lighter brown, the core still healthy with strong angles and colours.

"Yeah," I admitted. "But Tess helped us. And she's going to help Harl - and Stanley. For a long time. Longer than what they give us will last."

"So? We'll replant and make good. We'll be sitting pretty."

"But why don't we just have everything Tess can do forever? She's working, isn't she? She doesn't need fixing. And she could protect us - so no-one would try to take her."

"You're crazy," Larry said.

"I bet if we asked her she'd stay. We could set up with her and we'd have more chance. We could ask her."


"Tess. If we asked you, would you come back with us - stay with us?"

"No," said Larry again.

"Yes," Tess said.

Her voice seemed more human in my head than ever before. It was a simple answer and she wasn't super-excited or anything. Still, I thought she'd like it. I'd like it. It would be nice to be safe.

"I told you. We have to finish what we start. Besides, she's dangerous. You saw how dangerous."

"To other people. That's the point. Not to family."

"Enough!" said Larry. I knew by his tone there'd be no budging him now.

We walked on in silence.

We reached the rot zone an hour later - these were the suburbs outside of Harl which no-one had kept up. We passed a water tower, half its side blown out from some old fight. Then a church with a message still clinging to a sign.

"What does that say?" I said.

"Safe," said Larry.

"Is this Harlow?" said Tess suddenly.

"Nearly," said Larry, "And it's Harl, not Harlow."

"But is it also Harlow?"

"I... Jeez, Philip, you talk to it."

There was a grey shade to Larry that I didn't like. The rip of t-shirt cloth I'd wrapped around his arm was soaked through and the flesh at its edges was growing livid.

Harl was a closed town. Our friend Stanley once said it was like a medieval city except its walls were chainlink and not thick stone.

Lakshmi was on duty that day and she sauntered over to us as we queued at the gate. She took one look at Larry and called up a couple of escorts to get us to Stanley's PDQ.

"That," she said nodding at Tess, "is not spuds."

"There's no fooling you," said Larry. He was on the cart and swaying.

"It's tech," I said. "We thought Stanley might want it."

Lakshmi knew pretty much everyone in Harl and everything they got up to more or less as soon they thought about it. She nodded. "You're probably right at that. Whether he'll pay, though, that's another matter."

"No pay, no tech," said Larry. He was grimacing now with pain.

"He's not so badly hurt he'll go soft on a deal," she said to me, "That's a good sign. Get on then. I may visit later."

We arrived at last. Stanley came out to meet us and called his wife Jayne and his daughter Felice and all of them were greeting us and tutting over our state.

Stanley was a vigourous man in his fifties - not much younger than Dad was when he went - but seemed like he was full of life to bursting. It almost leaked from him, sparking in his eyes and driving him from subject to subject as he talked - which he did almost all the time.

The animals were fussed over and led away to the grazing at the end of the road. We were fussed over too. Stanley called in a medic and I had a bath with water heated from the stove.

Stanley and Jayne were trying to start up the Harl University but mostly they brewed beer and fried potatoes.

After they'd patched Larry and I'd got cleaned up, we all ate at a table in the yard. Fried up potatoes, of course, but also salads and even some ham that had not been pig for a very long time but still tasted good.

Lakshmi came to eat too and she watched us carefully.

"So, then?" said Stanley.

"We found tech on our land," Larry said. "So we thought of you. Your university. You want tech."

"Yes," said Stanley carefully. "It depends on the tech though."

"It talks," said Larry and shoved a handful of chips in his mouth. That was all that was needed really. If tech talked, it was smart and it worked. You could see the expression on Stanley's face change. Even though he was eating, he looked hungry.

"And what about all that?" said Lakshmi waving at Larry's fresh bandage.

Larry shrugged and then winced. "Got ambushed, didn't we?"

She looked at him. Of course, she knew us well enough to know we weren't the kind to rob anyone. Still, she must have thought us a suspicious pair - turning up like we had with wounds and valuables. "And you came out of it best, did you?"

Larry made an innocent face. "We were lucky. They underestimated us."

"And if we ride out there? Along the freeway?"

"Some blood on the path, maybe. They'll be long gone now, though."

"I see," said Lakshmi.

Maybe she would leave it there, I thought. But she did not seem happy.

"So can we look at this machine?" said Stanley using the gap to get to the real business. He was plainly trying to keep the excitement out of his voice.

"Are you going to buy it?"

"How would I know? But if it's anything like as smart as I think it might be then we'll probably make you an offer."

"Well hang on now," said Jayne warningly. "Let's not get to the deal before we've had a good look at the thing."

Stanley grinned, still excited. Ever since Larry said, It talks, the eagerness had been on him.

After supper, I hung out downstairs with Felice, the little girl, and drank the beer the family brewed - dark and malty with a kick that matched the smack I'd got in the wood, but in a good way. Jayne and Stanley went off with Larry to examine Tess and discuss a price.

Later, when they filed back in, Larry looked well-satisfied. We all had a few more drinks until I was floating and muffled and the time in the wood seemed like the sort of dream Ma used to soothe me from. Then I felt bad for Tess back under her tarp in the store room with the potatoes and all sorts of junk. At last I slept and dreamed of knives and Ma and running and running and running.

The morning light had teeth and it burrowed in through my eyes to chomp on my brain. But there was tea - the first I'd had in nearly a year - and that got me a little more straight. I was experimenting with a slice of toast when Larry came in and said, "Get the thing talking for Stanley."

First we had to get Tess up the stairs and into the University office. Stanley fussed about making a kind of cradle for her out of chairs and then pored over her, searching for sockets to plug wires into. Felice looked on, her eyes enormous.

"What will you do with her?" I asked.

"We'll learn." Stanley had opened the little hatch on her side and he was peering in at the glass panel, "Her?"

"I call her Tess."

"Really? OK. Hello Tess."


And he nearly fell off his chair.

I grinned at him. "Strange, huh?"

"It's not... the voice is inside."

"Yeah," I said, "it's like she's whispering right up close. How does she do that?"

"I think the nano interface is still active," he said. "They must have persisted all this time." Then, seeing my blank look, he said, "People used to have tiny little bugs living in them. Machines like Tess could talk to these particles and the particles spoke to people up close - right into their minds. Even drew pictures sometimes."

"Why doesn't she just speak out loud?"

"Because, through the dust, she could communicate with lots of people at once and from a long way away."

I nodded, thinking about the bandit leader clawing at himself. "And these whisperer thingies. They're still in us?"

"Looks like they stuck around, yes. They must reproduce."

"This is Harlow," said Tess, suddenly.

"She likes to know where she is." I explained, "It's a bit confusing for her after hundreds of years."

"My name is Stanley," said Stanley. "We call it Harl."

"Is Harl also Harlow?"

"Larry says not," I said to Stanley. I didn't much care what we decided about that but it didn't seem fair to hit poor old Tess with too many opinions.

"Well," said Stanley considering this. I should have known he wouldn't be able to resist the debate. "It's true that Harl and Harlow are different. But they're also the same."

"They can't be both," I said, though I knew I'd regret it.

"Who were you when you were five?"

"I was Philip."

"And when you were ten?"


"And you're Philip now. You are you now, and you were you then. The same only different. If you look around Harl, it's different for sure. We've shrunk back to the old downtown. We've built the fence. No more cars on the roads. Well, most of the time. Fewer people, less electricity. All the gardens are farmed - not full of trampolines and flowers these days. But a lot the buildings are the same, aren't they? And we think of it as the same town. The people carry on and take the place along with them.

"Harl is Harlow," Tess said. It was still a question, I thought.

"I think so. And enough of us do to make it true. That's what matters. A place is an idea after all."

I wrinkled my brow at that. "A place is a place."

Sure. And if we all disappeared from this town, the structures might remain. But they wouldn't really make it Harl anymore. The rocks and the trees - even the buildings - might persist, but not their essential Harl-ness. That would disappear with us.

"And the name is different," I pointed out, changing tack.

"Harl, Harlow. London, Londinium. Leningrad, St Petersberg. Names change and places remain.

"I suppose," I said doubtfully. It seemed to me that there was before and there was now and they were different entirely. For that matter, I wasn't at all sure I was the same as me at five. It didn't seem worth the argument, though. He'd only have tangled me in more twists.

"Besides, we are rebuilding. That's what the University is for. We need to get back to where we were. We hope you will help us."

That made me a little sad. For a moment, I had forgotten we planned to leave without Tess.

"It will still be different, though," I said stubbornly.

It was a jolly few days. Time filled with beer and fried potatoes is always good. I hung out mostly with Stanley. Tess now spent more time talking about machines and planting than whether Harl was Harlow. Larry and Jayne finished up their haggling and we began to fill up the cart with supplies. Lakshmi came back a few times with questions. She looked more serious now, less inclined to chat.

"Which crew did you say it was attacked you?" she said to Larry.

We were a day or two from leaving by then and, apart from the dreams, I'd mostly stopped thinking about the ambush.

"We don't know from that," Larry said lightly. "Bad guys."

"And they ran away?"

"Like squealing little kids."

"Hmmm..." She squinted at Larry, unsatisfied. "Because Sue Lambert came to me. Her Sam hasn't been back to her in a week."

Larry maintained his smile. He didn't quite shrug.

"You know, we have laws in Harl, right?"

"Sure," said Larry. "Laws are important."

"And that includes the roadways for five miles."

"Good to know," said Larry.

That night I went to visit Tess. Only, before I got to the stairs, Larry stopped me. "You going to see the tech again?" he said.

"Sure," I said.

"Give her a message from me, then."

Now that she was in her cradle with wires all about her and an old car battery driving power into bits of her, she had lit up a little with pinprick lights shining here and there. She seemed content - like a cat in a warm spot.

"Hey Tess." I said.

"Hello, Philip."

"We're going soon, I think."

"Am I coming?"

My heart gave a little lurch. "Do you want to?"

Tess paused. She thought very fast, Stanley said, so a gap that long meant she could not decide, I guess. "Would you let me?"

I wanted to say yes. She could teach us. Maybe teach everyone in our village. And she'd be a good protection.

"I think you're probably in the right place, don't you?"

"In Harl."

We could have been a family, though. And now, when I think of it - that conversation - it's always the gaps I remember. The things we didn't say. Me and a machine from a hundred years before. "Larry says he's changed his mind," I said, "He says it's Harlow. Harl and Harlow are all the same place. He said to tell you we finish what we start."


"So I'm saying goodbye, Tess. Thank you for saving us."

Tess paused again. Then she said, "I understand."

I stayed a bit longer with her, just looking out the window at Harl and its evening bustle, everyone heading back out to the markets to take advantage of the cooler air.

That night Larry woke me from a dream about home. Both Ma and Dad were alive and we had finished up a harvest. We were having one of our summer parties for the neighbourhood and everyone was there, even Tess on her cradle of chairs.

"Shh!" said Larry, shocking back dark of Stanley's house in Harl. "Get your stuff. Quietly. We're going."

"We can wait for morning," I said.

"Did you talk to the tech? Did you say what I told you?"

I shook my head to clear my thoughts.

"You didn't? Jesus, Philip -"

"Yes!" I insisted. "I told her. She said she understood."

"Good. We have to go."

"We can wait for the morning," I said again. "We haven't got all of our goods."

"She's going to come for us. Lakshmi and her boys. I've been told. It's now or a cell."

I felt bad about it, sneaking through the house like a thief. But I guess, like Larry said, we weren't actually stealing anything. We made a bargain and that was that. In the street, I found Larry waiting already with the cart loaded up and facing in the wrong direction.

"Where are we going?" I said.

"There's a gap in the fence I know about out on the north side."

"OK," I said.

"I'm going on ahead to check the road. I doubt they've stationed watchers but best to be safe."

"Where's this hole then?"

"Follow the road for about a mile then cross a little bridge. On the far side you'll see a fork. Keep left and then take the first right. At the end there you'll see the fence. Get up close and you'll see where it's cut."

"OK," I said. "Straight, bridge, left, right, fence. I'll see you on the road."

He slapped me on the back quick and he was on his way, clip clopping on the crumbling pavement, then off at a gallop.

Larry's directions were good. I found the bridge, a little concrete hump over a dried up ditch of a river, and then the turn. This was a warehouse road. There was a good moon and it made the town look like a pale ghostland. Madonna snorted and farted. We took the fork and the road began that edge-of-town dwindle. The sidewalk disappeared, the hulks of houses fell away. A warehouse loomed. Through its broken windows I could see a fire of thorns raging inside. And then, finally, we reached the fence.

I wasn't even surprised to the see Lakshmi there, waiting for me. I recognised her at once from the folded arms, the way she leaned. She was not pleased with me.

"Early start," she observed.

I laughed nervously. "Yeah. Well. How did you...?"

"I had a man on your brother. He followed as far as the fence then came and got me. I figured you'd be out this way too."

"He said it would be OK."

"You know, I'd be careful about advice from that quarter."

"Right." I really just wanted rid of her. Though I figured she maybe wasn't wrong either.

"You know where he's gone." It was not a question.

"Oh," I said. "You know. Scouting ahead."

"Leaving you to take the risk."

"I don't know, Lakshmi. I really don't. He just said to come this way."

"What really happened out there?"

"He told you. Bandits."

"I'm asking you."

I shrugged and grinned, playing stupid. "We were attacked."

The cut in the fence was high enough for a horse, perhaps, not wide enough for a cart. We both stared at it. Perhaps I could run though it on my own, I thought. Except she had that gun on her hip.

"Come with me," she said.

My heart seized itself. "Are you locking me up?"

She snorted and jingled a set of keys. "Not yet. I'm going to let you out the gate over there."

"Oh," I said, feeling stupid in real and not just pretend. "Why?"

"We're going to find out what happened on that road. You understand? Tell you brother that from me. And, if it turns out you boys have questions to answer, we know exactly where you'll be." She jabbed a key into the padlock at the gate and unwrapped a chain. The clanking made me think of shackles and prisons in movies. "Or you could run, I suppose. I don't think you've made enough there to get far, though."

I thought about protesting again but there did not seem much point. She held the gate open as I led Madonna through. She watched us until we turned the corner.

They had been bad men, I told myself. They had been going to kill us both. Maybe the truth of that that would carry you through cutting one throat. Maybe.

Larry was waiting on the far side of the wood. He had a little campfire going and a kettle already boiling.

"They're going to look on the road, Larry. They're going to look real careful."

"No-one's going to look,"" he said. "No-one's coming for us." But he looked back along the highway. "Come on then. Drink your tea. Long way to go yet."

It was almost like normal and I tried to be happy. The cart was laden down with stuff we could barter for a year or more. Salt and skins, batteries, bike parts, sunglasses. And there was coin too. The weather was cooler now - as if we'd teetered over a peak and were about, slowly, to begin the fall into winter.

I couldn't shake what we'd done. I'd think I was over it and then I'd catch a flash of Larry standing over the wounded man, drawing his knife across his throat. Words bounced along with us like a kind of song as we walked, popping up and repeating, then fading for a while. Finish finish finish what you start. The war war war never ended. Is this? Is this? Is this Harlow? It all washed and cooked and jumbled in me as Madonna snorted beside me and the wheels thud-rumbled.

Eventually, we made camp. Larry was in a good mood, whistling as he saw to the horse and shook out the tent blanket. I started a fire and got a brew going. We should probably have been jittery - we were just a good target now as we had been on the way to Harl. But it seemed like the bad thing had already happened.

"Where was she going?" I said at supper.


"Tess. When she got buried?"

"Oh. Who knows? She was a drone so she may have been just generally spying." He shrugged, "but it was all out war by then. She might have been heading to blow something up. Probably was. Us maybe."

"You think it was Harl, don't you?"

He didn't answer that.

Looking at the flames, I thought about Tess saving us by sending nightmares into the bandits. I thought about her panel and the numbers she had me type - the letters that shone up red.

"Larry? What does this say?" I took a stick and cleared a patch of dirt. I scratched out the characters she had flashed at me.

He squinted a bit in the flicker. "ARMED," he said at last.

It was nearly dawn when the explosion woke us. Even after a day's walk, it was loud enough that it cracked right down into our bones. There was a hill between us and Harl, but still the sky glowed orange with flames.

Finish what you start, I thought. Sure enough, when I glanced at him, I saw that Larry was smiling. He had been right. No-one was coming for us.


  1. I really enjoyed this story. Great dialogue and I loved the Point of View of Phillip. I was very impressed with the world building. On top of all that, the story pulled me in quickly and held my attention. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  2. Fun ride through a rough and tumble world, excellent work with settings. The pace was good, carried its momentum through to something you could see coming, but was satisfying nonetheless. Enjoyed it, thanks.