As soon as Harry signed on for his second stint, he regretted it. It wasn’t that it was exactly lonely. He could stay connected as he wanted to the hive mind. It was the pull to go outside. The reason he’d signed up again and the reason he knew he shouldn’t have.
It was farmland or water’s edge. That was all the choice anyone got. He hadn’t fancied watching robots tend crops inside polytunnels, watching grass grow as Paul put it. So water’s edge. Something wild, he’d hoped the first time. Not that there was anything to do there either. Machines monitored sea levels, cleared away most of the rubbish, alerted authorities about approaching boats. If it all broke down there was nothing Harry could do. Which made you wonder why everyone had to do their stint in the first place.
You could take someone with you, but somehow no one ever did. It usually led to some kind of irretrievable relationship breakdown: there was always screaming, usually hatred and, in one case that had the hallmarks of urban myth, two weeks of murderous intent. Paul and Reuben had gone together and everybody thought that if any couple would survive they would, but no, not really. A chance for a glorious fuckfest, as they’d so charmingly put it. They were still together, but not for much longer, Harry thought. So he hadn’t asked Elena to go with him the first time and, despite some half-hearted hints, he thought that had probably been all right. But she hadn’t expected the second stint, and really neither had he.
It was just that one day that haunted him, the day after he’d seen the bioluminescence in the water. He could talk about that strange glowing night, though the story had been told so many times, and elaborated upon by so many of his friends, that it was now known as his Mutant Octopus Sighting.
No, it was the day after, when he looked out the window at the tortured beach and saw the miracle of flat sand and gentle waves and he’d thought he could step back to his childhood. He hadn’t gone outside, he wasn’t meant to, he’d done the right thing and now he regretted it.
Two weeks into the Return of the Mutant Octopus and he was completely sick of reading, completely over internet feeds, completely forlorn. He wished, intensely, that someone was allowed for a visit, but it was all or nothing, in or out. Locked in your fortress for a whole month and that was that.
The weather had been crap: well, what had he expected. In the last week or so of his first, compulsory shift it had rained continuously. The kind of dark skies and threatening winds that made you glad to be inside. Even if it was in the fortress of nothing. But today it wasn’t raining, wasn’t windy, although a greenish cloud was gathering out over the ocean, just biding its time. The beach wasn’t as beautiful as it had been on that perfect day. The sand was flat enough, but the water had a dirty foam edge that didn’t speak of pleasantness.
Harry stared out the window, but in such a distracted way that the two figures caught him by surprise. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen ferals. Everyone saw them and had their stories to tell, but this was the first time he’d seen a little kid. Just walking along the beach with his mum probably. Not that he could tell if the kid was a boy or a girl. Both the ferals wore long, loose clothes and wide-brimmed hats. It was madness to go outside, especially at this time of day, but they were showing a limited kind of sense at least.
The kid would run ahead, find stuff, bring it back to the mum. Bits of rubbish, thought Harry. Shells if he was lucky, but more likely broken down rubble, fibro included. No gloves. The kid had bare hands. He squatted down, poked at something with a stick, and then began to dig.
God, stop, thought Harry. That’s layers of toxins right there. Enough to kill you in this one beach visit, leeching slowly in. The thought made him shudder.
He tried, half-heartedly, to identify them with his eyeset. Sometimes ferals were still connected to the grid; maybe these two hadn’t dropped out so long ago. But, no, nothing. No identifying feed, no information. He took a photo, posted it online, hoping someone would know them. He belatedly realised that he might get them into trouble. But really no-one would care. If they were outside the domes, they were outside. No claims, no responsibility. On either side. And thirty years later when the kid turned up looking for some decent form of medical care. Well… Harry hoped he wasn’t on that shift.
The kid had built something resembling a sandcastle: a mound of plastic and junk which glittered slightly. The mum sat down, plonked herself on a bit of vegetation in a shady spot nearby. She didn’t look at the tower, didn’t acknowledge its existence in any way. She kept her hands out of the sand, Harry noticed, but she let the kid go on digging. The castle was bigger now and kid had begun to decorate it. With what, Harry didn’t want to know. He remembered his feats of great architecture and engineering at the beach. The search for the right consistency of sand, the delight of water flowing in when the moat was deep enough. The inevitable wave that came in closer and earlier than you expected, washing half the castle away and leaving a subdued lump in its wake. His brother had thought the best part was running up and jumping straight into the middle. Harry had wanted his castle to last forever.
The kid stepped back to admire his work. Then back a few more steps. Was he going to run and jump? No, a quest for the crowning piece of decoration. Harry liked this kid.
The sky had darkened, the quality of the air had changed. Harry could see the screens flickering up to red, even orange levels. Why, he had no idea, he wasn’t going anywhere. The mum was beckoning to the kid, saying it was time to leave, urging it to go. No, the kid wanted to stay and perfect his castle. Large drops of something had begun to fall. Hail, maybe. Harry hoped not for their sake. The mum was pulling at the kid, her mouth wide open, yelling, threatening, pleading. What had she expected, bringing the kid outside? No day was safe. There was no such thing as a day at the beach anymore.
The kid didn’t want to go, even though the wind was battering at his clothes and the rain was becoming heavier.
Harry went downstairs and hovered at the door to the foyer. He just didn’t want to look, didn’t want to watch. There was nothing he could do. If he tried to open the door? No, it wouldn’t let him. Locked fast. A screen popped up, just to remind him how wet and windy it was outside, how toxic, how much better he was in than out. Just testing, thought Harry. There was nothing he could do. There was almost no event in which the tower would allow him outside. At least not until his final day, when the car was here, just by the door, when he was all filtered up and completely ready to go. Only then. They didn’t mention that aspect a lot. The fact you were locked in.
Fuck it, thought Harry. ‘Emergency!’ He called out to the air, pulling commands out of television dialogue. ‘Manual override. Evacuation procedure. Let me out… please,’ he added in case the computer could be swayed by politeness.
No, nothing. It didn’t even talk back. They’d tried that feature for a while. But it was a little too creepy when you were all alone.
He could hear something pounding. Maybe it was only that the wind had caught something large and heavy and was now heaving it uselessly against the door. And then it quietened. Not completely, but enough that he could hear voices. The mum and the kid. He tried the door once more and it opened. The system busied itself with reds and oranges and warnings, but the door opened. Only to the small foyer, a contained room attached to the tower, but separate. The airlock, everyone called it. The mum and the kid were there, sitting on the floor, looking up at him with wide eyes.
The kid turned out to be a girl. She seemed to know the inside of the tower well. That, or she had a child’s homing instinct for food, because she’d headed straight for the kitchen and foraged. She’d found his stash of lollies almost straight away and gained his assent by means of a smile.
‘Thank you,’ the mum said at last. She’d been mute at first. Angry or embarrassed that they’d been caught, Harry supposed. Unwilling to acknowledge their trespass. But he wasn’t going to ask them how they got in.
‘Harry,’ he said.
‘Gail.’ The woman offered a sandy, hardened hand. He took it, because it seemed rude not to, though it was hard not to keep thinking about what she might transfer to him. ‘And the small person raiding your cupboards is Ruby.’
The kid kept right on looking through his food stuffs.
‘There’s a bathroom and a detoxifier,’ he said.
‘For you, or for us?’ Gail asked.
‘It’s not safe, that sand.’ Harry floundered. ‘And the wind…’
‘Ruby,’ Gail commanded. They disappeared, giving Harry time to wash his hands elsewhere. He’d pointed them in the right direction, but they were already on their way.
‘Ortie knows us now,’ said Ruby when they returned.
Harry didn’t want to correct her. He didn’t mind being called Ortie. It was kind of cute.
‘Spaghetti?’ he offered. He could make that – he’d had enough practice – and it would be quick. ‘No bother, it’s lunch time anyway.’
‘We’ll only stay until the weather settles,’ said Gail.
But Ruby yelled ‘Spaghetti!’ and ran around the table. Gail grabbed her gently and she came to rest on a chair.
‘I liked your castle,’ said Harry. He was in the kitchen, mixing the sauce through the spaghetti and it had become too quiet.
‘It’s gone now,’ said Ruby.
‘Nature of the beast,’ said Harry.
‘You saw us out there?’ asked Gail. Though it was more of an accusation than a question.
‘And the storm?’
‘The tower’s meant to be completely closed. We’re not meant to go outside. I mean, I don’t even know how to open the outside door. Not till my last day.’ Harry stopped before his excuses became any weaker. He put three bowls down on the table.
‘Ortie let us in,’ said Ruby. Her face was already covered with spaghetti sauce..
Gail’s face closed as the anger she had let flare a moment before was shut down. Her skin made him think of driftwood and salt, though she probably wasn’t that old. Her hair had streaks of grey and it floated in knots down her back. She began to eat the spaghetti slowly. Harry couldn’t tell if she was only eating to be polite.
‘You can stay, if you like,’ he said, after the spaghetti. ‘I’m here for another couple of weeks—’
‘We have a home,’ said Gail. She stood and gathered Ruby, who was beginning to fade, and they left him, walking out of the kitchen, out of the tower before he thought of a reply. The squall was over, it was back to being… tolerable, at least. They should be able to walk home safely.
No information came in about Gail and Ruby; he’d added their names to his identification request but they seemed to be completely off grid. Unlike everyone else. Paul and Reuben had split, well, no surprise. Paul was making the most of his newfound single state if you could judge by the photos and the status updates. Reuben was sulking in an artistic way that allowed for revelations into the state of his soul. Harry had long, image-linked calls with Elena which just left him feeling lonelier. He kept his friends’ status feeds up on one of the screens, but he didn’t post anything himself. What would he say? Visited by two ferals and fed them spaghetti. He googled pictures of beaches and spent days making a virtual sandcastle complete with moat and towers, battlements and crenellations and a complicated drainage system. He floated a projection up into the middle of the room but stopped before he printed out a 3D version: he was becoming a bit weird, and he knew it.
The day before he left, the sky was blue again and the beach had regained some deceitful glamour. He watched two figures walk closer and his heart thumped when the shorter one stopped and waved at him. Big, whole arm waves accompanied by jumping. He smiled and waved back, though he wasn’t sure that they could see inside. Gail called Ruby away without looking at the tower and the kid quickly became distracted by something she’d found. Both of them started drawing in the sand. Swirls and shapes and strange, illiterate messages. Drawing in plastic, thought Harry. Not sand any more.
He found a last pack of lollies – he’d overstocked more than a little – and took it downstairs. Maybe he could leave it in the foyer for Ruby. The internal door opened easily this time. Thanks, computer, no need to pretend. Only a few steps in and he felt slightly uncomfortable. In theory all the contaminants were extracted, but still. He could hear giggling and he smiled. That Ruby was a nice kid. Too nice to have to live the way she did. He put the lollies on a shelf close to the outside door so that she’d see them straight away. There was an old bottle of sunscreen there, sandy and clogged at the top. He didn’t want to know how Gail managed to trick the tower into letting them inside, but he hoped Ruby wouldn’t have to wait for another bad weather day to find the packet of lollies. Though they were safe enough. No other inhabitant would take them if they’d been left in the foyer.
Harry started when he heard the clicks. Must be an insect, he thought, brought alive by some moments of sun. But the door snickered open, just a little, and let in a thin wedge of light and hot beach air. He remembered that: the feeling of moving from shade to scalding sun, running on hot sand. The door opened further and a small, unkempt figure stood hazy in the light. Ruby giggled and waved.
Harry waved back and watched Ruby perform a little jumping dance. He couldn’t bring himself to disappoint her. He held up a finger and then took his time covering himself in sunscreen. Ruby jiggled impatiently. He found a hat hanging on a peg. Why he was preparing himself, he didn’t know. He’d go back into the tower in a minute. Strip off these clothes and throw them away, decontaminate. He’d invite Ruby and Gail inside instead.
‘Come on,’ Ruby said, ‘Ortie will let you back in.’ And she ran away.
Harry only hesitated for a moment before he followed her into the sun. As he ran he heard the sound of the waves.
The next day was grey and the wind scurried around his feet as he carried his things to the car. The driver refused to get out. That was predictable, they all hated the trips, did them only for the money. That and it was expected as part of the licence. Harry looked around for Ruby and Gail but of course there was no sign of them. He’d only met them twice, it wasn’t as if they were going to come and wave him off. ‘Goodbye, Ortie,’ he said softly as he closed the door. The only reply was the lock clicking back into place.
‘Get in, mate,’ yelled the driver. ‘Time to return to civilisation.’
Harry opened the back passenger’s door and slid onto the black plastic seat. It was pristine. The back seat of the car had always been a mess when he was a kid. Sand and icy pole wrappers. Horrible things down the cracks. The car door closed and Harry felt the fans taking away whatever contaminants he’d gathered on his brief journey from the tower to the car. The sand on the bottom of his shoes would slip away. Coming back to the fold, he tweeted and a chorus of glee responded. He’d read the replies later. The driver began a well-worn monologue on the folly of autonomous vehicles.
He didn’t think he was too burnt, but he could see some red on his hands. He could feel the sharp pull of his skin between his shoulder blades. Elena would make a fuss, but, somehow, he didn’t care. He’d built a sandcastle, he’d waded in the water up to his knees, he’d been splashed by Ruby, he’d even swallowed a bit. And lived. Not that he would tell the others. Not that he wouldn’t start a bit of preventative therapy as soon as he got home.
But not now. Not yet. He wasn’t ready for yesterday to fade. His fingers closed over the shell Ruby had found for him. His talisman. All that was left of a day at the beach.