Protocol Seventeen, by Rachel Sanderson (short story)

A settlement designated non-critical will be deleted where it prevents access to supply of a critical resource. A record will be made prior to deletion.

We travel in guise as tourists. We have three days to complete the job and document what we can, as required under protocol seventeen. I’m confident, though I’ve never done this before. We know the layout. Seventy three houses, a third appear to be habited which is high for this region so far as anybody knows, though nobody knows much – it’s a long way out. We spot a few commercials too, some still in use by the look. One main street and a web of smaller streets coming off it. Beyond the town was farmland once. Farmland! I laugh when they tell us that, imagining chickens and cows, things out of a story. It’s deadland now.
‘How does this town even still exist?’ I wonder aloud.
When we disembark, we find ourselves alone on an empty slab of grey concrete where it’s cold and almost dark. There’s a sign, unlit, white letters on black: Roseville.
‘Seriously, who’s going to care?’ Jenna says, looking around. ‘Who wants to remember this place?’
‘It doesn’t matter who cares, it’s protocol’, I say. ‘That’s why we’re here.’

***

<21390517>
The team is pleased to report successful drop off and initial recon completed. While only eleven individuals were tagged on the first pass, it is anticipated that we’ll locate more tomorrow. Conditions are poor, vis is low and the temperature is subopt for actuals. Note that while the primary layout is accurate, it seems the detailed sim graphics were out of date. There are a number of new houses that appear to have been fabricated post-conflict; we suspect unauthorised. Therefore population is higher than originally estimated. Request data be updated to reflect this finding. Will provide further input tomorrow as a matter of priority. Request permission to offline.
<Permission granted>

***

‘I want to look around.’
‘Are you kidding?’ Jenna leans back on the bed and crosses her arms over her chest. ‘It’s freaking cold out there. And it’s dark. You can’t see a thing.’
‘I just want to look. We’re meant to be tourists, that’s what tourists do, right?’ Jenna shakes her head. ‘I’m off pay till tomorrow.’
‘You’re not curious? Not even a little?’
For a second I think I’ve got her. I see her forehead crinkle as she considers it. We’ve worked together a few times and I know, how can I put this, I know she doesn’t limit herself to regs outside of paid hours. But she shakes her head again. Already she’s got her deck up and is adjusting the display.
‘The connection’s bad. You’ll spend your night swearing at that thing,’ I warn her, but she only shrugs.
I shut the door, zipping my jacket, checking that my headgear is airtight. We saw a few people out without it this afternoon, but I haven’t run the tests yet and I know better than to trust untested air. That shit can mess with you for weeks.
The woman at reception downstairs gave us a code when we checked in. I could see Jenna trying not to laugh. Now I key the code into the cold metal lock and I’m almost surprised when it works and the door hums open. I’m introduced to a blast of cold air. I feel it on my hands and neck, the only body parts I’ve left exposed.
It’s dark outside. It doesn’t get dark like this in Citadel. I can’t think of the last time I was in true darkness outside of the crib, and the crib is different, of course. It’s not like you’re going to run into anything unexpected. It’s not like you’ll even be aware. I hesitate a moment, almost think better of leaving. I almost head back upstairs to Jenna.
But the only way to see is to get out there. So I step over the threshold and the door whirrs shut behind me.

It’s a block to the main street, which I figure is where I should go. I adjust the headgear once more, and set off. Truth is, I haven’t travelled actual like this in a long time. We used to do it all the time, my brother and me, when we were kids. We’d pretend all sorts of crazy, run around the streets causing havoc. But Citadel streets are quiet now. You know how it is; the crib is essential. You have to be in the loop. You mean to get out more but you don’t. Before you know it, you’re virtual almost all the time and it’s been weeks, months since you’ve done anything the old way. So it’s no surprise that my senses are on high alert. I can’t see much, the streets aren’t lit, but there’s a yellow glow coming from the occasional window, faint sounds of voices, strains of music. And the cold! It’s so cold. I’m wearing heavy, layered clothes but it doesn’t seem to help.
I walk past abandoned houses with yards overgrown by weeds. There are reminders of the war, even here – the occasional pit of a bullet lodged in concrete, the dark residue of fire. The drought has done its bit too. I can’t imagine what it might have been like in better times. I don’t even know if there’s ever been such a thing as better times here.
Better times come from better ways of doing things sings itself in my head.

I turn onto the main street. A figure is approaching. The details are obscured by darkness. I see it is a man, but something is not right. As he gets closer it becomes apparent that the colour has faded from his hair so it’s almost white. His skin seems to have lost whatever holds skin firm; it sags and wrinkles unevenly around his eyes and his neck, hangs in drooping folds under his chin. He weaves slightly as he walks, can’t seem to hold a straight line. He limps. His right leg is non-functioning, doesn’t bend at the knee. I observe his approach. Of course, I think, of course. A place like this: no coin, no juice, everything subopt. But still, this is something I didn’t expect to see. He’s old, I think. Unmitigated age. This is what it looks like. Old without the stems. This is how we all used to end, once. I breath a quiet expletive. Jenna won’t believe this, I think.
At first it seems he’ll walk straight past me. He is muttering under his breath. He is looking at the ground. He won’t even see me, I think. In fact he doesn’t see me and I am frozen to the spot, unable to process, as he lurches closer, and before I know what’s happening he’s walked into me, and I feel the solid weight of his body, smell the rank odour of sweat and something else I’m not familiar with, some scent that is sour and bright. He grunts.
‘You,’ he says. ‘What’re you doing here?’
‘My wife and I…’ I begin the line I’d practiced for a week.
He makes a noise. At first I think he’s angry. It’s a low, gravelly, roaring sound. His shoulders are shaking, his dilapidated face is turning red. Then I realise he is laughing.
‘Fuck me,’ he says. ‘My wife and I, how long since I heard anyone use words like that?’ Then his voices changes, becomes harder. ‘So what are you?’ He straightens up and holds my gaze. He’s a big man despite the degeneration. I am suddenly uneasy.
‘You an old-timer? Is that it? Why are you here?’
I start to stammer. I feel the firm ground of confidence rapidly dissolving beneath me.
‘I’m a tourist,’ I say. Stick to what you planned. Don’t deviate. ‘My wife and I are travelling together, from Citadel. We want to see the regions, learn more about our past…’ I trail off uselessly. The broken, grey houses around me make the words ridiculous.
‘Well, tourist,’ the old man says, considering me. ‘Welcome to Roseville.’

I follow him down an alleyway. I am surprised how quickly he walks, given his physical condition. There are smells in the air that I don’t recognize, discernible even through the filtering apparatus covering my mouth and nose. Rank, burnt, pungent. The man who is now my guide tells me his name is Jim. I don’t know why I’m following, something about him compels me. Suddenly he stops and I almost walk into him. We stand at the front door of a house with boarded up windows at ground level and broken windows above. A slither of light is just visible at Jim’s feet. He bangs a few times and the door opens. A warm, smoke-filled fug hits me. Voices rise in greeting and, uncertain, heart pumping, I am ushered inside.

People look up as we enter, but only for a moment. I’m surprised they don’t seem more curious about my presence. Guise is effective, I think. Maybe they do have tourists here from time to time. Maybe I’m not the first. There are a few others like Jim, old men, faded and withering, sitting around a table. They are sorting through small, brightly-coloured rectangles of paper, laying them down in columns and rows on the table, picking them up. One of them gives an impassioned cry and lays all his rectangles down at once, then there is discussion and disputation and someone collects them all and mixes them up and it all starts again. I am led past the table to the other side of the room where Jim calls a few words to a dark-haired woman across a high wooden barrier who hands me a bottle.
‘Roseville’s finest,’ Jim says.
I hold it. It is true glass, I think, a rare old thing, and tinted green. Jim is given one too and he raises his like he’s signalling to me, knocks it gently against mine.
‘May all your days be good ones,’ he says. I fumble for a response but it seems, if I follow his lead, the correct response is to drink. I quickly unsnap the headgear, tuck it back into the pouch that sits around my neck. I raise the bottle. The liquid is cold and bitter and gently buzzes on my tongue.

He begins to speak. It seems that he has been waiting for me, an interested stranger, to tell his story to.
‘I was born here in Roseville, you see. Lived here all my life,’ he punctuates his speaking with a dry laugh. ‘You and your woman will look round tomorrow morning, and be gone by the afternoon, sure enough.’
I’ve flicked my recorder to on, surreptitiously. This is what I’m here for.
‘My father moved here in the fifties, he saw trouble coming, and thought it was time to get away from the city. Started his own business here. Did alright too. Smart man my father, though he didn’t foresee how far the trouble would travel. But who would have, eh. Ah, you’re probably too young to remember all that.’
I nod, and say nothing. My earliest childhood memories are suffused by the war that tore the old city apart: the thumping bass of explosions, my mother’s face, pale in the darkness as she pulled my brother and I out of bed and into the shelter. The old man continues.
‘Born here, I was, and I’ll die here too, like my father did. He’s buried in the cemetery on the edge of town. I go there sometimes when I need to think. It’s a strange thing, I’m older now than he was when he went. Older than my own old Dad. That I didn’t expect. Won’t be long now and I’ll be joining him I guess.’
I order another round of drinks and he grunts his gratitude.
‘So have you ever been to Citadel?’ I ask.
‘Nope. Not one for travel. My children left, years back. My grandchildren are all Citadel-born, city kids through and through, but it’s too late for me now. My home is here. No, I couldn’t leave.’
I’m nodding, trying to contain my disbelief.
‘So you… you like it here?’
‘This crap-pile you mean?’ he snorts. ‘I know what it looks like to you, son, but you have to understand, all my memories are here. My whole life. I met my Nerida about a block from where we are today. We lived together on Drayton Street for gone forty years. She died there. I saw my kids grow here, and these old bastards,’ he gestures to the table behind us, ‘are what I have to make do with for friends.’ He waves to the woman behind the barrier. ‘Let’s have another, Etty, before I get too bloody sentimental.’

I’ve had too much to drink. My body’s not used to this sort of input. I stay a while longer then leave Jim there with his friends, say I have to check in on my wife, which is not entirely a lie. I let out a belch in the icy air and it echoes off the walls of the houses on either side of the street. I weave my way back through the quiet streets of Roseville. I don’t let myself wonder which house is Jim’s or what corner it was he met his love on.

Jenna is asleep. I hear her breathing. I’m swaying a little as I close the door behind me. I’m tired and drunk but I’m not yet ready to sleep. I should upload the night’s recording now, I think. That’s how we operate – transfer data as close to collection as possible, for safety’s sake. But something stops me. I’m not sure what.
‘Ben?’ Jenna’s voice is muffled and vague.
‘I’m here,’ I say.
The sensation is strange, a kind of aching in the center of my chest, a sharp compression in my throat. I wonder if it is from something in the air. I get ready for bed without turning the light on. I try not to disturb her. Somewhere between taking my jacket off and setting my deck to recharge, I stop. I’m shaking. I feel as though the air itself is quivering. Soon this will all be gone and all that will be left is what I capture. Words and images. Sound and light and the numbers they are made from. And maybe that’s all there is, under it all, I think. Maybe that’s all we are: a string of zeroes and ones. I suddenly feel so very tired.
‘Jenna,’ I say quietly, half hoping that she won’t hear.
She makes a small, sleepy sound.
‘Jenna, I think I’m getting too old for this.’
‘Old?’ she says. ‘That doesn’t even make sense.’

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

This entry was posted in auslit, australian literature, rachel sanderson, short fiction, short stories, short story and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Protocol Seventeen, by Rachel Sanderson (short story)

  1. Pingback: May 2013 Short Story Competition Shortlist | The Australian Literature Review

  2. Ken says:

    Beautifully written…the prose is clean and clear. Great story – great idea.

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