How long can someone wait? How long before the questions begin to arise, before the legends stop making sense? And what happens when the questions get too much, when life stops making sense?
When the watchers come, a hush falls over the world.
My scrap of beach is never noisy, save the calling of the gulls and the constant sussurrus of waves over stone, but the silence that accompanies those grave beings is something quite different. I never believed the sea could be silent, not until that first day.
I was combing, same as always, walking up and down the narrow strip of coastline left me by my father. It was the only gift he ever gave me, and it wasn’t like he had much choice. One day he was combing, the next I found him, face down in the surf, crabs already nibbling at his skin where it poked out from his sleeves.
I can’t remember if I cried. I doubt it. There wasn’t much love between us, not as I understand love, anyhow.
I was combing, creeping back and forth, watching the point where the waves meet the beach, searching for those elusive scraps of Other. I’d already found two that morning, which made it my best day in a month. Two tiny slips of silver, soft and pliable, yet unbreakable.
My father told me they came from those who had ruled this land before we arrived. I don’t know who they were, only that they came from elsewhere, from another world. My head tips back and I stare up at the grey, scudding clouds that form the roof of my world. There’s something above them, though I rarely see it, a space so vast it contains whole other worlds.
That’s where they came from. Then they died and we came, clawing our way out of cages so vast, and buried so deep, generations of us died before they ever saw the sun. Or so the legends tell. And this was our reward.
I straighten, stretching my back and patting the case on my belt, making sure, for the 100th time this morning, that the Other is still there. It is, of course. Where would it have gone? The only thing that might happen is someone might steal it. But to do that, they’d have to make it through the barriers, then reach me. And had they reached me, they’d now be going to join my father, as the sea takes them slowly away.
These scraps are mine. They’ll go with the others, tucked in my safe place, waiting for the day. I don’t stop to add up the figures when I slip them in there. I already know them. I know them like I know the shape of every pebble on this beach. I’ve not enough, not yet, but it won’t be long now. Maybe another five years, maybe less, if I get lucky. More days like this would help.
I can still remember my thoughts from that day, still taste the false hope stirring my stomach. I remember the hum that preceded the watchers, the way my teeth ached and my eyes watered.
I look up, though I don’t know why. There’s a sound, almost too faint to hear, but I feel it in my chest. It’s a humming, powerful like the land crawlers that come to buy my scraps of Other in exchange for food and drink. They hum like that, only this is that times a thousand, times a million.
I look up, and I see it. It’s huge, a grey silver lump hanging in the air like the clouds. It’s vibrating and close enough for me to see the pock marks in its shell, like the huge whale that beached on Elan’s plot, two strips across. He’s not there anymore. He traded that entire whale for Other scraps and bought a ride out. Bastard.
It’s shaking, blurring before my eyes. And it’s so big. It’s so big I can’t breathe. It’s going to come down on me, crush me.
Then the noise changes. Slits open in the skin of the beast and things emerge, long, narrow tendrils that snake and peer, white lights crowning the tips. Fireflies, I think at first. Then the lights flash on and off, in perfect synchronicity, and I know this is nothing natural.
They writhe, graceful and silent, and something about the movement takes me back. I don’t know where, but I feel something I’ve not felt my entire life. I feel arms around me, warm and comforting, holding me close. I feel a warmth in my chest I didn’t know I could feel and, without understanding why, tears stream down my cheeks.
The tendrils shift and move, each coming around to focus on me, until I’m pinned in place by dozens of tiny lights. They’re watching me. I don’t know how I know, but they’re watching me. I’m frozen, and the sea is silent.
I don’t know how long I stood there, alien eyes measuring me, judging and counting. I only know when the pressure changed and the beast began to move. Bit by bit, it floated up into the sky, the tendrils disappearing inside. Then, without warning, a sound like the world was coming apart knocked me on my arse. And the beast was gone.
I didn’t comb anymore that day. I went home, to the tiny hut I call my own at the back of the beach. I stashed my two scraps of Other in the safe place, lay down, and closed my eyes. And I saw ships. And I wondered.
Elan bought a ride out, but that ride was a land crawler, a huge thing that moves on tracks that rattle and clank as it rolls along. There’s no escape that way. There’s only more beach, and more people. More like me.
But the watchers… that’s an escape. That’s a real escape, a way to get off this cursed world once and for all. They come every now and then, maybe once a month, maybe less. I tried to keep count, but keeping track of anything these days is difficult. Father never kept a calendar. He never kept track of the days. He taught me the only important figure was seven, the days until the land crawler came round again.
All I know is, I need to be ready, the next time they come. I’ve known that for years, now, every time they arrive bringing fresh disappointment, because I haven’t been ready. But now, finally, I think I am. My safe place was filled up a few years back and I’ve made another two since then, each one filled to bursting.
I’ve barely combed in the last month, finding just enough to keep me fed. Instead, I’ve spent my days sewing. Father taught me that, as well. I suppose I should consider it a gift. I don’t know where he learnt it from but I’m glad he did.
And now it’s ready. They’re coming tonight. I don’t know how I know, but I do. I know it as surely as I know they’ll see my sign and take me away with them. Away from here, away from this endless beach, with its endless stones and constant rattle and hiss of the sea dragging my life down into the deeps.
I don’t know how long I’ve been here, but I know it’s too long.
As the sun begins to dim, I drag my sign out and spread it out across the stones. Out here, in the harsh light of day, it looks small, smaller than I thought. But it’s big enough. Simple, too. Simple is good. That’s the one thing I’ve learnt from my years on the beach.
I sit down to wait, wrapping my blanket around my shoulders to retain what little warmth I have. I wait and I dream. I dream of a place where the sky is blue. I dream of a place where the air doesn’t stick in my throat and make me cough, where the land crawlers glide with the grace of the massive ships I’m waiting for, where the grim-faced men who buy my scraps of Other give me more than gruel and glares.
I dream until the humming lifts me from my doze. My eyes flash open and I stare up at the mighty beast and the tendrils that snake free from its body. The lights flicker on and focus on me. I hold my breath. My hands are filled with pebbles I’ve scooped up, turning them over and over, grinding them together.
The lights move, shifting until they focus on the shimmering, silver sign I’ve spread out on the beach.
Simple, but it says what it needs to. The lights shift again, blinding me as they focus in once again. I’m pinned beneath them, the air trapped in my chest. It has to work. I can’t be here any longer, I can’t.
The beast comes closer until my strip of beach is entirely covered, the vast thing hanging above my head. Something shifts in its belly, something moving that reveals another light, far larger than the spots.
Something grabs me, wraps around my body, and sucks me up into the air. I’ve a moment in which to scream, before my tiny scrap of beach is gone, left behind. I see my hut, think of the precious things I’ve gathered inside it, my shells, my second pair of shoes. Then it’s gone.
The light comes closer, the wind rushing past me. Soon, it’s a gale, dragging my hair and beard around me, whipping it across my face. Then I’m sucked into the light and the wind is gone. Everything is gone.
All I can see is light. Then it dims. A face appears, a face I don’t recognise. It’s soft, smiling, welcoming. I stare, feeling my mouth dropping open, but unable to close it. She’s beautiful.
I don’t know what a woman looks like. I’ve never seen one, not that I’m aware. But I know this is a woman. She smells different, looks different. She feels different. And she’s smiling at me.
‘Hello, number 2043, welcome aboard.’
‘Where am I? Who are you?’
‘My name is Celia. I’m your guide through your re-entry procedure.’
She bursts out laughing, shaking her head. ‘I forget. Every time, I forget. Don’t let it worry you. Let’s just get you cleaned up, shall we.’ She takes my arm, but I snatch it back. There’s something in my chest, a tightness that no amount of pretty smiles will take away.
‘Where am I?’
‘You’re on-board Survivors Five.’
‘Please, don’t let it worry yo—’
She presses her lips together, taking her smile away from me. The tightness worsens. She glances behind her, lips moving, but I can’t make out what she’s saying. Then she turns back. ‘I may as well tell you.’ Her voice has changed, no longer sing-song. ‘They think you’re too old, anyway.’
‘Too old for what?’
‘Breeding, of course. You’ve demonstrated the traits we require.’
‘The women of earth. The survivors of the war you pathetic lot brought to our beautiful planet.’
I don’t know what she’s talking about. I only know I starved myself for years to get here, and she’s calling me pathetic. ‘We didn’t make a war.’
‘Of course you did. Why else do you think the world’s like that?’ She waves a hand at the floor. My head’s no longer working, no longer able to contain what I’m trying to understand. She turns away and mutters something again.
‘Who are you talking to?’
‘I’m sorry, number 2043, but you’re too old.’
‘What? How old am I?’
‘We’re estimating somewhere between 75 and 80.’
She’s lying. She’s lying to make me angry. This is a test, this is all some test. I’m not going to fall for it. I’m not going to let them do this to me.
‘I am sorry. If you’d like to lie down again, we can make it quick.’
I open my mouth to argue, but she places a hand on my chest and shoves me backwards. I thump into my chair and something sharp digs into my neck. As the world fades, I hear her muttering again.
‘How can it take them that long to work it out? I just want one young guy, someone who looks better than death warmed up, you know. Is that really too much to ask?’
Whatever the answer is, she laughs. Then the world goes dark. As I slip downwards, I hear the sea.