Sunsets – short fiction by Lyle Bateman

Sunsets

By
Lyle W. Bateman
3134 Words

Foraging for food was a daily experience in the city. “A good day for it though,” thought John, as he made his way through the ghostly tunnel of dark skyscrapers. Sniffing the air he knew the cold north winds of September were close at hand, but for now, the sweet smell of lilac blossom twisted through the air with the cotton-white wisps of poplar fuzz.

He walked west along a street once known as 7th Avenue. John remembered all the street names from his youth, although he had little call to use them those names since the Evacuation; people were scarce in the city these days, and any people he did see usually weren’t in any mood to talk. In the distance in front of him, the dilapidated dome of the planetarium rose toward the sky, a long, jagged crack running from its tip to its base. Beyond, the gray bulk of the Rocky Mountains loomed as a backdrop for a surreal renaissance landscape.

On his left, John past a building he used to know as the Eaton’s Centre. In his youth, it was a thriving retail building, full of stores, boutiques, restaurants. Shards of glass now littered the sidewalk from the row of broken main floor windows. He skirted one pile, stepping over a dented metal sign whose cracked, faded paint advertised a long over 50% off sale.

When he first ventured downtown for his foraging, the Eaton’s Centre, as well as the other retail complexes, was a gold mine of supplies. Clothes, food, cooking utensils — everything he could want laid out neatly, as they were left so many years before. When he’d first entered Eaton’s Centre, it looked like the staff had just stepped out for a coffee break; only a thick film of dust covering the shelves, floor, and merchandise betrayed the much longer break forced upon the staff.

Now, though, John ignored the giant mall. It was cleared out several years ago. Foraging was becoming much more difficult these days. The ready sources of food and supplies — the suburban malls — were cleared out shortly after the Evacuation by the city’s few remaining scavengers, and by raiding parties sent to the city from the mountain strongholds of the rebel factions. Downtown took longer to empty; it was harder to get too and more dangerous.

He absently stepped off the sidewalk to cross what was once 4th Street. There was no point in checking for traffic; the only traffic in the city these days were occasional colonial tour groups that ventured in to look at the ruins and they traveled by air. Conventional fuel supplies had long ago disappeared, crippling the few automobiles that still worked.

Glancing at the sun about 30 degrees above the horizon, he continued to make his way west. His soft footsteps echoed loudly through the ghostly silence. At first, the silence was quite eerie, but found he was now used to it. In the early years, after the Evacuation order came through, John ventured downtown a few times, but never stayed for long. He was used to seeing streams of people, scurrying this way and that as they tended to their business. After the Evacuation, the buildings stood silent and empty, giant tombstones to the life they had once catered too. The feeling was too strong for John, and he’d avoided it ever since. Only now, as other supplies disappeared, did John venture into the city’s core.

He made his way toward a small restaurant he’d found a week before. Its freezers were full of meat when the Evacuation started, but the lack of power left it as a rotted, fetid mass. However, in the storeroom, he found shelves full of canned goods, most in pristine condition. He estimated it contained enough food for at least a month, if no one else found it.

As he approached 6th street, his pace slowed. On the corner, he could see the dull red tower of a familiar office building. He slowly shuffled over to a bench near the road and sat down heavily. In the early days, it was impossible for him to pass this corner without tears; now, he was just wistful, longing for the impossible days of yesterday. He could almost see Sandy strutting through the revolving doors, wearing a smart blue business suit, clutching her briefcase under her arm. Her radiant smile was burned into his memory, yet time frustratingly blurred her face.

The building had survived its ordeals relatively unscathed. Since it contained very little in the way of food or survival supplies, it suffered only the careless destruction of vandals rather than the more careful, devastating variety practiced by the scavengers. Debris and shards of glass from several broken, ground-floor windows littered the floor of the lobby.

Glancing around the square in front of the building, he noticed the statue behind him — a tall bronze man dressed in fringed skins and cap, with a bag of trading goods slung over his shoulder staring silently to the west. John vaguely remembered the statue from the hundreds of times he’d waited in just this spot for Sandy to get off work. Yet, he’d never really studied its detail. He shuffled over to the large marble base and read the inscription on the small brass plaque set in its face.

“Sitting Eagle
John Hunter
1874 – 1970

John Hunter was a noted Patriarch of the Chiniki Band of the Stoney Tribe in Morely, Alberta. He was recognized for his business and ranching acumen and among other tributes was commemorated by the Calgary Stampede Board in 1951.

Sculptor

1988

Foundry

Don Begg

Cochrane, Alberta

Studio West Ltd.”

 

As he finished, John heard the unmistakable whoosh of a distant aircar. Without thinking, he crouched low and darted off to the relative safety of the building’s overhanging canopy. Crouching in the shadows, he tried to sort out the noise. It seemed to be coming from the northwest, probably Jasper colony, and the volume of the sound indicated the aircar was several miles away yet. Still, John knew that it could cover that distance in less than a minute.

Locating a nearby broken window, he dashed into the building, skirting the debris and leaving a trail of footprints on the cracked and dusty white and black marble floor. Adrenaline laced blood surged through his veins, his heartbeat thundering in his ears as he quickly considered his options. A quick scan of the building’s lobby fit well with his memory, showing few well concealed hiding spots. The security station, a waist high desk in a large semi-circle, against the broken window he’d entered by would shield him from view inside, but leave him exposed to the outside. A hallway led away in front of him, past the long dormant elevators to a wide marble staircase some twenty meters away. To his left, along the north wall, the debris-scattered expanse of the marble lobby, walled by floor-to-ceiling windows in various states of disrepair, provided no shelter.

He made a dash for the stairs as the roar of the approaching aircar increased in volume. He exited the top of the staircase and quickly surveyed the second floor. A small food kiosk, looted and smashed was to his left, and in front was a large bank of unbroken windows with short wooden benches every few meters in front of it. He settled in behind one of the benches just as the aircar slowly settled to the ground a few blocks away.

The windows looked out over the corner he had been on minutes before. A hint of orange tinged the western sky, the setting sun outlining landing aircar. John squinted to make out the details; from this distance, he couldn’t see much. The long, sleek lines reminded John of the airplanes of his youth, but the lack of wings made it seem more like a crippled bird. By the size, he guessed it was a tourist bus rather than a security patrol. He relaxed a little, but stayed well concealed behind the bench.

The aircar settled to the ground and a long ramp extended from one side. After a few moments, a stream of people emerged from the side of the craft, carefully picking their way down the ramp. From this distance, it was impossible to tell the difference between colonists and humans; only at close range were the larger, bulkier muscles and oily, leathery skin apparent. If not for the aircar, John might have assumed they were human.

After the whole group had exited, about thirty in all, they began making their way down the street, toward John. Every few feet they stopped while a few took holos of the abandoned buildings, or the guide described some aspect of local architecture. After a few minutes, the ramp recessed back into the side of the aircar, and it lifted off, hovering for a second before thundering down the street past John.

It all looked like a standard tourist excursion. The aircar would wait patiently a few blocks down the street, and when the colonists had finished the tour, it would be waiting to pick them up. John shifted his weight, trying to find a comfortable crouching position. He would have to wait them out.

A tourist group, in themselves, didn’t pose much of a threat. They were usually harmless; the worst they would do is overwhelm him with requests for holos. Still, the guide would surely report him to the security patrol when they left. The colonial government considered it unseemly to have, as they put it, “natives bothering the tourists.” As the group meandered down the street, snapping holos, pointing excitedly and listening to the guide’s descriptions, memories flooded back from the time of the Evacuation.

“We never should have let them stay!” Sandy spat the words, like curdled milk, from her mouth as she threw her clothes into a suitcase. The hot, vehement tone startled John; it didn’t match her soft, small body, or the smoothly expressive brown eyes under her wrinkled brow. She always got like this when they talked about the colonists, but it still startled him every time.

“But how could we have known,” he asked plaintively. “When the first ship crashed, we had no choice but to let them stay — they had no way to leave, and we certainly couldn’t provide them with one. After that, we had no choices.”

Sandy regarded him icily, a pair of silk underwear dangling from her hand over the suitcase. “We should have known. And we should have fought back.” She threw the panties into the waiting case. She had good reason to be upset — The colonists killed her whole family, directly or indirectly. Most of them, her mother and father included, died shortly after the first wave. Unknown to anyone, the colonists carried a virus from their home world. With millions of years of shared evolution, its symptoms were mild and flu-like for the colonists, but deadly for humans. Within a year of first contact some 70% of humans had either died from it or were showing chronic symptoms. At last count, there were little more than 100 million humans left on earth.

“There are people fighting back now. It doesn’t seem to be doing them any good.” As soon as he said it, he realized it was the wrong thing to say. It was clear to him that the rebel factions were doing little more than annoying the colonists. Occasionally, one group would score a victory, but usually at the cost of complete destruction. But to Sandy, the picture looked different. After the plague claimed most of her family, her two surviving brothers joined up with a resistance unit to the west. They died during their first raid, but managed to overrun a colonial compound and liberate, temporarily anyway, some farmland.

John could see the anger rise up in her; her eyes narrowed to slits and the rising blood tinted her face two shades redder. “At least they’re trying to do something.” The words were slow and purposeful, each one carrying the force of a well-thrown brick, each aimed directly at him.

She said nothing more, needed to say nothing more. It was an old argument, hashed and re-hashed many times before. From the time the first wave of colonists arrived, several years after the crash, and the illness first began, it became clear to Sandy that she must do something. John saw a pivotal change in Sandy’s demeanor as she held her mother’s hand, the last few breaths of life retching and vomiting from her body. From that moment on, Sandy became a die hard proponent of active, violent resistance.

He stared at her for some time as she methodically filled her suitcase, refusing to meet his gaze. She had taken the Evacuation order hard, much harder than he had. For John, it was just a matter of history. From the time the first wave of colonists arrived, he knew that humanity’s time as master of this planet was limited. The first wave of ships carried over three hundred thousand colonists from their home some two hundred light years distant. Each ship dropped from the sky in a different location, establishing twenty new colonies in remote regions of all six inhabited continents. In the following months, scores more arrived, each dropping off thousands more colonists.

When each colony established itself, they sought out the local human government to negotiate treaties for their newly acquired land. The local humans of course, met this with great suspicion. Short of a fully armed response, however, there seemed little they could do. The media was full of reports of scattered outbreaks of violence between humans and colonists. Invariably, the colonists won such contests handily, with devastating results for the human attackers and little or no loss of colonist life. After a few countries found similar results with test offensives by their armed forces, it became obvious that human weapons were no match for the alien defences.

As the ships kept coming, the colonies expanded to accommodate new arrivals, and new colonies sprouted up. Each time, local human governments grudgingly negotiated new treaties to replace the shattered ones. As the colonies increased in size, the aliens began venturing outside them in greater numbers. They began to take an interest in the surrounding areas, the way a tourist might take interest in a third world slum. The human inhabitants used the opportunity to launch terrorist attacks on the relatively unprotected tourists, in the hopes of scaring them off their planet. Finally, unable to stand the loss of life to their colony, the aliens issued the order to evacuate all areas bordering colonies. Security patrols vowed to terminate any ‘natives’ still residing in the proscribed areas.

Sandy’s suitcase neared its capacity. A few pairs of socks remained in the drawer, and she seemed to be slowing down. She clearly had something on her mind. As she removed the last pair of socks from the drawer, she stared distantly at them, lost in thought. Finally, she tossed them in the case and turned her eyes to John. “I won’t be going with you to the reserve.” Her tone expressed a cold fact, belying the emotionally charged issues underneath.

John had expected this, but it was more painful than he’d expected. She’d been toying with the idea of joining a resistance group for several weeks now. “So, you’ll be heading for the mountains, I suspect.” He was unable to keep the quiver out of his voice.

She nodded mutely, staring down at the suitcase. There was silence for a long moment before she spoke again. “I didn’t want it to end this way,” she said softly.

John sighed, and crossed the bedroom to the window. Outside, the sun shone brightly; a small boy played by himself in the middle of the deserted street. “I know,” he said quietly. After a long moment of awkward silence, he continued. “You know I can’t go with you,” he said, turning to face her. He’d considered it, wrestled with the idea for weeks now. In the end, his abhorrence for violence, of any kind for any reason, won out narrowly over his desire to stay with Sandy. Any resistance he took part in would have to be passive.

She nodded slowly, her eyes fixed on the light blue floral patterns of the bedspread. The slight sag of sadness and loss replaced the hard lines of anger in her face of just a few moments before. “I know; I wouldn’t even ask.” For a long moment, they remained like that, motionless statues, each with unbreakable momentum in a different direction. Finally, she forced her eyes up to meet his.

A light film of tear glinted off the soft brown of her eyes. In those dark pools, he saw years of love and life, pain and loss. Slowly, their bodies moved together, mechanically, like robots. His arms snaked slowly around her waist as he drew her nearer. They stood that way for a long time, each unable to break their final hug.

The tourists had moved closer. Now, they milled about in the square below. A large group was studying the message on the base of Sitting Eagle’s statue; another was examining the marble pillars that held up the building’s canopy. John crouched a little lower to be sure he was out of sight.

It had been twelve years since the last time he held her in his arms; he didn’t even know if she was dead or alive. He’d heard from her a couple of times during the interminable two years he’d spent in the Alberta reserve after the Evacuation: short, distant notes that barely communicated her well being. Since he’d come back to the city to live again, he’d heard not a word. He bit his lip to fight back the tears.

From this closer vantage-point, he had a much better view of the aliens. In fact, they were nearly identical to humans. The higher mass of their home planet gave them a stout, muscular build, and the larger sun gave their skin a chocolate coloured leathery texture, but in reality, they didn’t look much different than humans from some parts of Africa or the Indian subcontinent.

Perhaps that was why we accepted them so readily, he thought. All the literature and discussions prior to their arrival prepared us for aliens that were utterly different, foreign. What we got were aliens that were remarkably like ourselves. That threw us off, made it more difficult to act decisively.

Below him, the group began to form up again, ready to move on. The guide gave out some final information on Sitting Eagle to a few eager tourists as the rest of the group came together behind them. Finally, they moved on down the block. John eased himself out of his hiding spot and crept across the floor to the window on the south wall. From there, he could see the group disappearing down the street to the east, with the aircar parked, waiting for them in the next block. In a short while, he heard the whine of the aircar’s engines warming up.

He waited until he could no longer hear the engines before he moved. Finally, he made his way across the floor to the wide staircase, down, and back out the broken window. He turned and made his way south, glancing vaguely backward. The sky to the west burned orange and yellow as the setting sun, half-hid atop the mountains, ended another day. Sitting Eagle stood silent, watching.

Copyright 1996 Lyle W. Bateman – All Rights Reserved

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