Against the Grain
Atwill's back is barely visible through the raging dance of particles. It doesn't help that the lenses of my goggles are so scratched that I have to turn my head slightly to the right in order to see anything at all.
Despite the rope connecting us, he seems distant and often lost in this perpetual sandstorm. The lifeline allows us to be no more than three-and-a-half feet from each other, but I feel trapped and alone for much of the time, trudging endlessly on. Communication is normally impossible; the batteries to our intercoms died many months ago, so now we are reduced to hand signals or, when greater urgency is needed, shouting with our foreheads pressed against each other.
Even then, the wind whips away our words, the sand scrubbing them smooth of any meaning.
It's so difficult to remember exactly how long ago we set off, though I know there were three of us when we began. And we left several others behind us, awaiting our return and their rescue.
My recollection of our arrival is hazy, though I do remember that our pilot was killed in the crash. My wife is waiting for me back there somewhere. She and the others are counting on us. It was decided that the three strongest, of whom I was one, should set off to seek help. That was so long ago.
We equipped ourselves from the possessions that had survived the forced landing and set off, not knowing how long we would be gone but, given the terrible conditions we faced, praying it would be just days. Then we wandered out into the wilderness of wind and sand, striking the wall within only a few hours.
Its alternately pitted and smooth surfaces formed themselves out of the swirling grains, bronze and grey in colour, and at first we thought we'd found the perimeter of some settlement. Only after walking along its length for several hours did we come to believe that it went on forever and that there was nobody, or nothing, alive behind it.
"It's a boat," yelled Atwill as he pressed his mouth to my ear. I, in turn, pressed my mouth against his headgear: "A boat? Here?" He simply turned again and nodded. I knew that Atwill hoped to find some answers inside it.
As far as we knew there was no water here at all, let alone enough to make a boat necessary. But from where we stood, pressed against it, it did look like a boat of some sort, that the current had caught and later abandoned haphazardly.
It's keel was turned towards us, towering over us but affording us some protection form the wind at least. It seemed utterly black yet a lighter colour was beginning to show through where the sand had worn away at it.
Atwill motioned and I nodded back. We began to move around the 'boat' to see what lay on the other side. The wind caught us fiercely as we rounded the end of the huge object but we clung together and finally found ourselves in a position to clamber onto the shape.
We spent some minutes clambering over it, acquainting ourselves with shapes that, even at this skewed angle, looked like they could be cabins or deck lockers. There was even something resembling a binnacle. But we couldn't find an opening anywhere and everything was the same universal black colour. There didn't even seem to be any portholes or windows either and it seemed to me to be made of some sort of smooth stone rather than the expected metal or wood.
After 10 minutes or so, disappointment took over and we gestured to each other that we should abandon the supposed vessel. We slipped over the side like ocean weary travellers leaving their sinking ship.
As we trudged disconsolately on, I wondered what the object could really be. The insane thought even occurred to me that it may be a sculpture of a ship, never intended for use or practically but merely to imitate a sort of life.
I looked back once and saw the shape appear and reappear as the sand whipped around it. I wondered how many years it would take before the sand wore it away altogether or just buried it and forgot it.
Food and water was thankfully never a problem as, along the enormous and seemingly unending wall, there were doorways, held closed against the perpetual scouring wind with simple locks. Inside each of these identical rooms were four beds, a rudimentary bathroom and a locker filled with bland but edible food. Priest, our companion, expressed his doubts about the food, fearing it was drugged. But, as Atwill said after our own supplies had run out, we had no other choice except starvation.
But we haven't seen one of these 'way stations' for two days now and I feel light-headed and weak. Though he is bigger than me, Atwill must be feeling it too.
My body aches more than normal and I feel as though I should simply lie face down in the sand and let it swallow me alive. If I had another way to die I might choose that instead. But I don't.
Within days of setting off it became clear that we were making our way through an excessive and labyrinthine architecture of stone and metal; a maze whose origin and purpose was unknown. Atwill asserted several times that the floor upon which we were walking had a slight incline and that, according to his compass, the structure was slowly winding in upon itself. He answered with a disdainful look when I asked if he could be sure if his compass would work properly in the conditions in which we found ourselves.
Visibility was so poor that all we could do was cling to the enormous wall that appeared before us on the first morning. The top wasn't visible in the howling flurry of the sand but we estimated it must be hundreds of feet high. As Atwill had said, the wall seemed to twist and curve in unexpected ways, always leading us in another direction, away to our left.
That, together with the constant whorls of sand that appeared before us and the absurdly fast changes in wind direction, meant that we never knew in what direction we were truly heading. The sand seemed to set us a new challenge every few minutes, rebuilding itself relentlessly before dissolving away in an instant to be replaced equally as quickly by a new puzzle.
Whatever we do the wind tugs at us or pushes us, pulls us back or shoves us sideways. And despite it all, we spend each day drenched in sweat from our exertions. To suggest that we rest for even just a day would be like admitting defeat; we might just as well put a gun to our heads.
The dreadful ache in my hips, back and legs begs me to stop but we daren't halt before what passes for nightfall here, when the light changes from a torn orange to a darker shade that belongs to no hour of the day that I recognise. I feel as though I've stopped being a man and have become simply a machine for walking.
Always there is the agonising song of the wind, whistling or grumbling, as it hurls the sand hard against the edges of the buildings. Wherever you go it is there, following every turn and curve on this seemingly eternal journey. It has always got there before you and maybe it has even helped to create this place, bleakly hammering it into the curious shapes and whorls that adorn some of the low buildings huddled against the huge wall.
At first I plugged myself into my personal music player, drowning out the constant sound. But when the songs began to seem as monotonous as the roar and sigh outside, I abandoned the player in one of our nightly shelters.
Once, several weeks after we started walking and several months ago now, the storms stopped. That can't be true, of course, but it seemed as though they stopped. We found ourselves in a silent, still pocket hidden within the storms. The air cleared of particles for a minute, only a minute, and we could see across the floor of shallow, undulating dunes. There was a far wall; huge and distant, disappearing into a rumour of sky. Only then was it perfectly clear to us that we were inside some enormous structure and not merely crawling along its surface.
Within seconds of us removing our goggles and protective masks, the sand had lashed at us again, stinging our faces and forcing us to huddle into ourselves. But we had seen something that had both made our hearts sink and given us hope.
I remember the day when we lost Priest. He was last in line and for some reason he cut the rope and ran off into the shifting beige nothingness. I noticed the slackening in the tension of the lifeline and signalled Atwill. Somehow we came across his body later that day, even though the direction seemed impossible.
He'd been driven mad by the constant storm and had stripped himself of his headgear and clothing. The sand had flayed the skin from him and was eating into his flesh moment by moment, exposing the white of his bones. We dragged what was left of him over to the wall, heaped sand over him and left him there.
A day later we came across something that could have been a machine or an animal, still only partially buried. We had examined the jagged thick remains for some time but it had eluded any definitive explanation.
That evening, at one of the waystations that allowed us food and shelter, Atwill insisted it was some sort of flyer. That it was proof there were inhabitants here after all and that we only had to find them.
I pointed out that the white spars could easily have been bones, scoured of all flesh by long months or even years of the persistent grit and wind, and that the inhabitants may just be giant flying beasts somehow adapted to live in these harsh conditions.
Atwill was clearly unhappy with my conjecture. "You know, Zucco, I don't know why I bother asking your opinion on anything. You always find the most depressing 'explanation' for everything," he'd snarled.
I pointed out that this was probably because I was a scientist and, therefore, a stranger to the inherent dangers of incautious optimism. Or wishful thinking.
The wall is gargantuan and seems to be made up of many different metals and types of stone. Several times we have been obliged to cling to it, covering ourselves in a tarpaulin or just huddling even further into our sand-caked clothes, trying to escape the wind as it attempts to tear us free and send us who knows where as it flings us into the grim-coloured sky (if sky it is).
Once, just after the worst of the renewed storm had passed, I found a collection of small objects pushed into a fissure where two sorts of metal were joined together. They were small intricately-designed things. Not exactly round but not really bearing a strong relation to any other shape either.
I tucked my jacket over my head and looked at them in as much detail as I could there and then. There were a mystery to me.
At our way station stop that night, I showed the others (as Priest was still with us then). They turned them over and over in their fingers, offering various explanations as to what they might be. They were obviously made rather than hewn by nature and had various indentations and markings on their small surfaces.
Might they be toys, said Atwill, hidden by a desperate child? Or maybe some form of mysterious communication devices, conjectured Priest. I wondered where there were so many of them ... nearly a dozen in number ... and if they somehow fitted together to form a 'book' of some sort, a chronicle of disaster or progress, a warning or a map?
They lay on the floor between us, giving nothing away and serving only to puzzle and infuriate.
Priest smiled, his parched lips cracking as he did so. "Well at least it proves one thing. We're not the first ones to come this way." He saw that as a sign of hope, of escape; I simply feared that we would find the bodies of those who had secreted these objects away in the days ahead ... if their remains hadn't been completely hidden by the sands.
The sky is a different colour this morning; a greyness has crept into it, although its brightness hasn't dimmed at all. The wall has veered off in yet another direction and we are spiralling still further to our left.
We are both quite weak now and every step takes three times as much effort as it did a few days ago. I doubt either of us will last much longer. I am long past hoping that we will find anything here except wind and sand; it seems to be the whole world.
There is a steady incline to the floor here and Atwill seems to be slowing his progress even more than me. He is now only over a foot in front of me. Several times I have deliberately dropped back. I don't want him to turn and see me that close, to realise that he is weakening so badly.
The wind has changed direction now, growing even faster and tugging at our clothes, pulling them upwards for the first time. It's as if the wind is leaving. Maybe its journey is done.
The sand inclines steeply. It's the first time we've ever seen that, too. We begin to climb. After several minutes, I feel the tension on the line slacken and then nearly stumble over Atwill, who has sunk down in front of me. I do the same, my knees crunching painfully into the hard sand.
I look at him, his head sunk between his shoulders, and realise that he has both hands outstretched, palms flat against a wall. I look around, peering hard through the departing storm. We are surrounded on three sides by walls. Impossible!
The opposite wall is now only a mere dozen yards away whereas when we'd seen it the previous time it had seemed a mile or more away.
I shake Atwill, trying to get some sort of response. I yell in his ear but he doesn't answer. Then I see where his hands are resting, his fingers partially covering some letters stencilled onto the surface.
I pull his hand away and feel a blackness creep into me as I see the full extent of the thing covering the wall. Brushing at it, the sand falls away to reveal a sprawling diagram of some sort. Among the squares and crossroads, squashed between the temples and dead industrial zones, I can see the shape of our fate. The city seems to be gargantuan, going on forever, lost in distance as the shapes of its avenues and cul-de-sacs crawl up the wall.
There, trapped in the centre of the sprawling map is a large circular pattern. And there, at the dead centre of the winding maze, are the words that Atwill's fingers had covered - "You are here."