2 min read

by William Thomas

We resume walking before dawn, following the pale ribbon of a ruined road through high mountains. We travel quickly, without packs, encumbered only by the faint anxiety that whispers to all wayfarers trespassing immensity. And the bigger fear of whatever it is that prefers high places. 

     Outlined against fading stars, jagged peaks pierce the heavens on either hand. Their looming majesty is tinged by something more than the familiar menace of isolation and fast-changing weather. Something sinister. Even alien. Lower down, the unglimpsed shoulders of granite giants press in at us with the imponderable weight of uncaring mass and age. 

     We make good time, each step transmuting the nearest possible future into the present stride and then the most recent past. Weathered, worn but still intact, the pavement beneath our feet ought to convey civilization's reassurance. Instead, it feels haunted by the long lingering absence of traffic. Or any other signs of human purpose preceding our own. We don't speak for the first two hours. 

     Though it will be hours more before the sun tops their rim, the upper flanks of the nearby summits have begun to take on form and detail against the imperceptibly paling sky. I like how my companion moves. The sway of her stride triggers synapses still enraptured by endorphins so recently released by those same hips. My laughter shatters the silence crowding our footfalls. 

     “What?” Even in this place of soul-crushing desolation, it only takes a single human voice to animate the morning. 

     “I was just thinking that if you were naked and hairy and a foot shorter, carrying a child on your hip – and I was equally hirsute, with a stout staff in my hand – we might be Lucy and her party crossing the Laotoli three million years ago.” 

     Claudette considers this as the surrounding peaks slowly gather. approach and pass, keeping pace with our trek. “I guess it's only fitting,” she says at last without turning her head, “that the human experiment that began with a single couple ends with the same.” 

     This may be an exaggeration. Somewhere there must be – may be – other bands of survivors. But we have encountered no other life since the Visitors appeared. And we both know there will be no more babies. The road curves to the right, opening onto new vistas. 

     “Fireflikr!” Lucy is fully alert, sensing danger. She has spoken in Claudette's voice. I have already stopped. Off to our left, high above the chasm still hidden in deep shadow, a broad rock face is illumined by something more than approaching dawn. The improbable coils of something resembling a giant's electric heater bathe flat stone flanks in hot orange light. That glowing grid must be hundreds of meters across. Or more. It appears to pulse slightly. Unless this is the effect of warming dust dancing in the intervening air. 

     Claudette looks back at me through Lucy's eyes. “Do you think it's some sort of power station?” she says. “Or maybe a beacon?” 

     “Whatever that is, it's not of this Earth,” I decide.

     The chill racing up my back has nothing to do with temperature. Four years ago, strange constructs like this began appearing in high ranges. From the Himalayas to the Alps, the Cordilleras and the Rockies, the glowing grids were emplaced and activated literally overnight by... nobody knew. Radar screens remained blank. Every drone sent to investigate crashed. Skilled mountain teams vanished. Even hastily redirected satellites failed to obtain usable imagery or readings before they went dark. Then the Great Dying began. 

     This flickering grid is not the only artifact in view. Sandwiched on a shelf of land between the road's right-hand shoulder and the towering bulk of granite and limestone close beyond, a house-sized concrete pad offers a fine view of the Fireflikr. Perhaps too good. Half-framed by plastiwood, it lies uncompleted, abandoned like another interrupted dream. The surrounding dirt is undisturbed by tracks. So I am unable to identify the cracked dry spoor of a passing animal, possibly even wilder than ourselves. 

     “Not a good place to linger,” I say. 

     Claudette is already on the move. I hurry to catch up. Together we round the next curve. Perhaps a half-kilometer ahead, the road enters a pass. Through that giant natural keyhole, the view opens onto distant slopes crowded with condos. Jammed together in stair-step patterns like ziggurats, these high-end habitats should be coming alive with last-minute lovemaking, breakfast preparations and early commuter traffic. But no lights burn. No vehicles crowd the empty streets. And the only lovers finding solace are the bones of the dead.

Photo Captions:

Abandoned mountain road beneath the Fireflikr