by Mac Tonnies
We hustled onto the abandoned exit ramp from the back of the VTOL carrier. Bits of gravel bounced along the cracked pavement. I glanced at the placid skyline, silhouetted against a gray overcast. Then the VTOL gained altitude with a steady, oceanic roar; we watched it leave from behind the safety of our visors, gloved hands fidgeting at our sides.
The city loomed above us, empty and impossible. It had appeared two weeks ago after nearly a century. We had all studied the disappearance, tracking down and interviewing witnesses, pondering the quantum fluctuations that emanated from the city's erstwhile perimeter. There were no answers. And our questions had been unformed, fleeting: more an exclamation of our collective ignorance than proper attempts at deduction.
When the city abruptly reappeared, I had greeted it numbly, as if in the back of my mind I had always suspected it would return. I had the disquieting feeling that the rest of the team felt the same strange acceptance. I watched their zippered, ghostlike forms preparing Geiger counters and infrared scopes, the eyes behind their identical oval visors barely visible.
None of us knew the other. We had assembled for intermittent lectures and contingency drills for nearly a decade, but resisted any urge to discover anything about one another. This sense of anonymity had been encouraged by the research group that had selected us; I assumed that as the first ground team to enter the newly materialized city, our individual psychological reactions might prove valuable in some arcane way.
We walked down the exit ramp, our movements almost casual. Our radio chatter filled my helmet: latitude coordinates, temperature readings, spectroscopic survey results, air density. I held my Geiger counter at arm's length and heard, to my relief, only the metronomic ticking of normal background radiation.
We passed empty lawns, the skeletons of trees. Glass-skinned office towers had been shattered and blotted with dust; we passed a dilapidated strip mall that seemed to recede into its fissured parking lot, faded awnings rippling like emaciated wings.
We altered our course to avoid congregations of rusting cars, glass crunching underfoot. I glanced at an infrared scanner held by a team member, wondering if I'd see the thermal signatures of hidden survivors, but all I saw was a collage of unassuming grays and blues, vaguely defined by perspective.
Shards of glass and exposed metal winked under the muted sun like jewels excavated from a tomb; I wondered if I'd smell rot if I uncorked my visor. I imagined a haze of aged metal and powdered concrete -- a perennial basement mustiness.
The horizon, carved into vertical slabs of daylight by darkened buildings, was disorienting in its familiarity. With the exception of a few collapsed radio towers, it looked as it had before. I had expected some palpable change, an inherent foreign quality. After all, was this even the same city? Whoever or whatever had taken it one-hundred years ago could have kept the original, leaving us with this elaborate simulation (every gutter and fountain court and graffitied wall reproduced to molecular tolerances).
I felt a chill inside my anti-contamination suit as we strolled through a silent intersection (cars like the husks of dead insects . . .) Suddenly my heart began hammering, spreading a sick adrenal warmth through my chest. I gasped, crouched, my breath noisy over our radio link. For a moment I was certain that we were being watched, and that whatever had happened here before was about to happen again.
I felt the frozen momentum of concrete and metal encasing me like ice. My consciousness lurched, dimmed, spun, the sidewalks and balconies fading in and out of awareness like images in a dream. And briefly I fumbled with the certainty that this was in fact a dream: both the resurrected city and my own mind mere props backlit by conniving stagehands; a coalescence of illusion.
A translucent insect perched on my Geiger counter. I caught a glimpse of tangled yellow guts beneath its gnarled skin. I opened my mouth to call attention to it but it vanished in a soundless flutter.
The group waited for me to recover, expressionless eyes wandering over the ancient, pitted concrete. I stood shamblingly, breathing in lungfuls of chilly canned air. The panic abated until it was a residue lining the inside of my skull. We resumed walking. No one spoke.
As night fell, we set up camp in a gas station parking lot, our arsenal of monitoring gear stacked neatly just beyond our foil sleeping bags.
I didn't dream.
The city is being repopulated. The initial colonists were reluctant at first, but took to the streets and buildings with surprising vigor. On television, military vehicles escort convoys of trailers and overburdened trucks down newly paved ramps and boulevards. Apartment complexes fill with eager new inhabitants; malls are restored to generic dignity; silent parks bloom into convincing simulacra of their former selves.
On the evening news I watch parties thrown in rechristened streets, discretely monitored by military personnel. Bands take to prefabricated stages, dwarfed by lights and speakers and smoke machines.
The city's new residents, dizzy with sound and alcohol, become a pixilated smear as my eyes glaze with exhaustion. But I can still see their faces: buoyant, smiling, expectant, half-raised to the televised sky as if to usher in the new day. In the shafts of smoky light, odd, glittering insects take to the air.