We hope you enjoy this excerpt from “Splintr”, by Christchurch author AJ Fitzwater. Fitzwater is a Guest of Honour at Au Contraire III, New Zealand’s NatCon for 2016, and “Splintr” appears in our 2016 anthology At the Edge.
Splintr / AJ Fitzwater
It’s the last sunset on Earth. Again.
Yes. I chose to stay and look death dead in the eye. I prepared for a swift end. What I didn’t know, when I stumbled home dirty and bloody from the Hagley Park evac zone that yesterday of six months ago, is that I would die over and over. Six months of facing the shell, the convex nothing, that swallows me every night from the South Pole around.
My deaths are nothing so soothing as sleep. They slip the knife of stars in under my defences, readying to flick away another piece of me in the morning. Everything stops: the baleful red eye peeking between the eyelids of the shell; the stars; the tracery of my thoughts; my heart.
And in that last knowing wink from the universe, as the Earth is cut off from the rest of it, there is hope. Hope that the last sliver of silver light gives out for good, that the Collective’s ships are beyond reckoning. Hope that tomorrow I’ll wake up dead and this will all stop ending.
Stop. Stop these new memories. Of a world I didn’t know, didn’t ask for. Stop reliving. Stop dying on these southern cliffs.
That, or at least put the puzzle pieces of myself that break off every morning back together. To make some sense of why it keeps ending.
Aeron, m’girl, people would say, making sense has never been your strongest quality.
Well now, there’s sense in giving death its due.
Now they don’t say anything. Now they don’t even people. What did the Collective promise those eight billion to save their souls? Everything. And nothing. A future, but not one here. All because these greatest minds in the universe, who we didn’t even know existed until a few short weeks ago, couldn’t quite say what the future looked like inside the planet-eater, though they’d been saving civilisations from it for millennia. There’s no adequate name for it, in their languages or ours. The Dark suffices, along with the promise of letting humans become more than human.
Promise, or threat?
I might not be the brightest biscuit in the tin, but I know liars when I see them. None of the Collective could truly show us their faces. They couldn’t survive in our atmosphere outside special suits, so they said. Yeah, some of us cried wolf. The Collective were perfectly, infuriatingly, reasonable to that. Those who didn’t want to Ascend were given the choice of asteroid ships that housed other Questioner factions.
So, gods don’t all think alike.
So, how do I die today?
Picking a spot takes careful consideration. It’s the only thing I have any control over on this day on rewind. Waking at 8am in my old cold Christchurch flat, filling the banged up station wagon at the Mobil where the pie warmer is always turned on and full. I resist, but this all happens as it should.
No need to shower. Who’s gonna smell my stink? Theoretically, I had a shower late last night to remove the triumphant emptiness smeared on my hands and face. Shower today, and pieces of me may be sent out to sea too early. Lost count of how many pieces of me have broken off. Takes only a few moments for another piece of myself to flake away each morning, like shaking off the hangover from a bad dream. This shed reptile skin acts as if I’m not even there, fragile derma that could crumble to dust in the merest breath. It goes wherever it pleases on walkabout to the edges of the South Island. Just hope they don’t fall off.
I’d like to say the pain is bearable. If pain is all I can offer, then let’s do pain the best way possible. Raw skin. Screaming nerves. Absorbing every last moment and micro-meteorite puncture wound. Still, not sure what is more painful: the roaming pieces of my skin, or the growing blankness when I reach out for old memories. Everything else from that first last day onwards is intact. And on that new day when they crack open the shell in a thousand, a million, a million million years, they can excavate the archaeology of my dust and discover what truly went on here.
Continuity. Yes. Be careful of distractions, losing track of time.
I always point south from Christchurch. Want to be as close as possible to the border between flesh and blood when the Dark comes. It’s the best I can do in what little time is left. Sometimes I go as far south as State Highway One will take me, right to the dead end of Bluff. Sometimes I sit out on the Fortrose Cliffs or near the Waipapa Point lighthouse, kicking my feet over the edge, not wanting to go before I have to.
Right now? That border is the cliffs just beyond the Curio Bay campground. Tattered awnings and rusting Zephyrs hunker at the arse end of anywhere. Antarctic fury has pushed trees into arthritic angles, and carnivorous summers hide cicadas ready to scream seventeen years of sexual frustration.
Now the cicadas hold their bows and the wind holds its breath. The smashing grey water has stilled, listening for the onrushing tide of star-crossed nothing.
The deathly cold puckers the edges of my raw wounds. I pull the sunset around me like a blanket, but it doesn’t suffice for the lost layers of armour. Would be nice if my skin could come back and tell me what death does to their pieces, what they think of our choice which wasn’t a choice at all. Would those skins fit any better after their sixteen hours of freedom, with their divots and hastily sewn rents?
I’m being punished for wanting to leave the road marker of my DNA here. I’m the spanner in the works, the bacteria in the petri dish, the cat perhaps, or perhaps not, in the box. The Collective wouldn’t risk turning back for one mere speck. They’ve gathered the motes in the corners of their eyes, done their good deed.
Look, there it goes. Losing the fight above the horizon of the upper shell. The silver star, shrinking so quickly over the course of the day, quicker than should be possible. It’ll be back to thumbnail size come tomorrow morning, if I’m unlucky. Do they look behind while I look ahead?
Only the molten red eye watches now. Pushing down. Waiting for the crust to splinter off. A singular thought bouncing off the inside of the empty skull. I don’t do thoughts well. I lift, I hold, I tear.
How will death feel tonight? Short and sharp, a snapping of teeth? A slow peeling back of the layers; flesh, then nerves and arteries, bone, organs, ash? I can never quite disappear. We always return to stardust.
Goodnight. Die well. I’ll see you in the morning.