by Mac Tonnies
(This story also appears in Weird Space, sister publication of Apocalypse Fiction.)
The world had emptied and, for all intents and purposes, we now had it to ourselves.
At night we'd make love while the Halo flowed silently overhead, burning yellow-white and throwing thin shadows across our sand-encrusted bodies. The tide would come crashing in after the day's yellow-brown had shrunken to a knot on the horizon, chilling us, hissing and churning between entwined limbs. Tiny crab-like creatures emerged from the hard-packed sand, eyestalks glinting, and waded out onto the chilly beach, avoiding us.
We would lie on our backs, the sand molded to our bodies, and watch the Halo's slow disintegration, our muscles tightening as fragments succumbed to gravity and plummeted to the horizon with a faint dopplered roar that reached us only many seconds afterwards.
Once we had seen a Halo fragment explode in mid-air; we instantly curled into ridiculous fetal postures as we waited out the explosion. Thunder issued from the ocean as chunks of debris punched the surface, blasting out clouds of acrid steam that eclipsed the Halo like a heavy gauze stretched tight over the night sky. As the steam faded, the Halo reappeared with seeming renewed urgency -- if something actively perishing could be said to have urgency -- and once more we were alone and naked, basking in an embrace that lasted until the dull yellow of morning.
We knew the ocean was poisoned, of course. Even after the smog had descended it was hard not to notice the lurid scabs that flecked the water's surface. Once, while fishing, I had come across the sunken wreck of a charred pod of some sort, still flashing brief, animated logos for forgotten Halo industries. The water around the downed pod was noticeably blue -- not the ocean's natural color, but a harsh, not-quite-right blue like something out of a bottle. That night, as we cooked mollusks from the vantage of the shallow, earthen seawall, the ocean actually glowed, rivaling the Halo's ubiquitous yellow.
When we began vomiting, the realization of what was happening to us came like the slap of cold water, leaving us numb and alienated from one another. Retreating into private worlds, we sat with our knees clutched to our chests for hours on end, eyes tearing from the smoky, chemical haze that drifted across the shore.
We had never explicitly spoken of it. We had known what was coming since the Halo disaster. Our remaining time together was like one of the vertiginous waves that hammered the shore at night, unseen but for the odd, skittering crabs.
Original story artwork from Weird Space.
When the machines began descending, I was at first convinced someone had survived the orbital cataclysm. The machines didn't look like anything I remembered, but then again it had been a long time; our isolation dilated the flow of days, confusing circadian rhythm, melting away the imaginary partitions that delineate night and day.
The first machine descended late one morning, stirring the sand with its glowing backwash. It looked something like an enormous metal brain embedded in the center of a gray, convex disc. Bulbous objects lined the central structure like parasitic growths, each glowing a different color. What I initially mistook for landing gear were actually bright, metallic tentacles that flexed and curled in unknown gesticulations, sometimes grazing the sand or dipping (cautiously, it seemed) into the tainted sea.
We joined each other on the beach just as the strange craft rotated and glided casually away from us, tentacles bunched at its sides like trained snakes.
Then, suddenly, there were more of them: hundreds, silhouetted against the bleary ellipse that was the sun. They made no sound, but the impression of being surrounded by immense energy was palpable, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle in alarm.
We gripped hands, each using the other as an anchor to reality. The tide, licking at our ankles with bands of yellowish foam, seemed colder than usual.
We now spend most of our time watching the new visitors. There doesn't appear to be any limit to their numbers, or the complex, gravity-defying forms they assume in the morose sky, gleaming like phantasmagoric jewelry.
Sometimes they blot out the sky entirely, forming a ceiling of flickering cold light and undulating metal. On the horizon, they're beginning some unguessable construction project; even at night, their newly erected chrome spires can be seen across the water, scalding the overcast with a strange, mossy glow.
We no longer think of our dying, or the bleariness at the edge of our vision that heralds nerve degradation. The nausea and headaches recede into the background, beyond reach of awareness or chronology.
Silently, hushed by the tapestry of alien metal far above, we greet our visitors.