We haven’t published a short story for a while, and we love a little future tech, so we’re really stoked to share this excerpt from David Rupert’s ‘Migration’.
'Migration’ is set in 2095 and follows the lives of three women, Eve, Sarah & Zoe, dealing with the after shocks of a world where digital immortality is the norm. Digital entities manifest irl as 'hollers’, 'dupes’ are thrown out in great piles of corpses and everybody 'migrates’… well, almost everybody.
It’s too long a short to post in full, but here’s a taster for you to enjoy…
In the hot August morning, the air inside the tiny shepherd’s hut was already thick and sluggish with the rising heat. Utterly still, the intense silence was only broken by the occasional hum of a passing insect, or the chirrup or coo of a bird outside.
In the timbers of the hut, insects scuttled and skated in the dark passageways that narrowed and gaped between every panel, occasionally venturing out to search the flats for food or snare a smaller beast that fate had marked. As the temperature rose, the hut began to creak and groan as it swelled and twisted under the sun.
A rambling and haphazard gallery of photographs, newspaper cuttings, notes and maps covers every inch of the walls. Some are held up with pins, some pierced on to nails or splinters, whilst others are jammed into creases or balanced precariously on ledges and lips. There are scratched and dogeared pictures of small groups of people; smiling at dinner tables or waving at the viewer with their arms around each other, walking away through a forest, sitting by an ornate fountain, and in one jumping en mass into a swimming pool. As their feet force up the first waves and spray from the water, their mouths gape wide open in shrieks and shouts and their faces shine into the photograph with the happiness and carefree joy of recreation.
There is a faded ordinance map, traced with elegant pale pink lines that curl and swoop to plot out the rise and fall of hills and valleys. Little teardrops of blue pick out the lakes and ponds that nestle amongst the contours of the land, and a solitary black line creeps over the top right corner where a railway track winds awkwardly over the terrain. A red pencil line, faded and smudged a little, draws a delicate link from the north-west side of a patch of dark green, around the gentle terraces of pink before stopping as it pricks into a large bubble of blue.
Pinned firmly to the corner of the map, a middle aged couple stand in front of a large house with red shutters and a winding gravel drive. He is standing behind her with his arms reaching over her shoulders and wrapping tightly around her waist. Her floral summer dress is scrunched around the waist and raised up a little by his embrace, revealing slender legs in white pumps that bend slightly under his weight. His cheek is resting on her hair, which catches a little in his stubble and forces her head to tilt slightly towards her shoulder. He is squeezing her with all his love and her face radiates her sense of belonging and completeness.
On the table tops, shelves and window sills an array of things break up every surface, a scattering of keepsakes and memories. Two smooth beach pebbles, one black, one white. A wine cork with a faded date scratched in pen. A blackened silver watch with a broken strap. An old jam jar filled with multi-coloured buttons. A tiny porcelain child pushing an old style bicycle, his nose and fingers chipped away. A dented and rusted tobacco tin, scratched and polished from years sharing pockets with keys and loose change.
Almost disappeared in this tapestry of things, almost invisible by her stillness, Eve sat motionless in a faded armchair. She was remembering and, once in a while, her eyes drifted from item to item as she bathed in their evocations. The flowers that grew rich and strong at the bottom of her chair were faded and threadbare by the time they curled over the arms, and here and there small holes opened up in the fabric, offering glimpses of the dark knots and twists of material that lay underneath.
Eve’s chest rose and fell with a steady rhythm, the oven hot air drawn in firmly through her nostrils and then gently released with a slow, collapsing sigh.
As her eyes meandered from memory to memory she stopped on a small copper coloured coin on the shelf above the fireplace. It had a split cut in to it, that ran from the reeded edge right through the wreath of flowers and stopped exactly in the middle. It was his. He’d found it by a quiet country roadside when they were holidaying in France and had kept it in his pocket ever since. He used it to open bottles of beer when they were on picnics, or in friends gardens for barbecues and parties. It was always a talking point, generating hours of speculation and theories as to who might have cut the slit in it and for what purpose.
She heard the warmth of his voice as he told the story of finding it and smiled as she remembered how she used to rib him about the increasingly elaborate details that attached to his tale. She saw his fingers and thumb gently tumbling it in his hand. She heard the fizz of a beer bottle as he scissored the coin onto the cap and removed it with a sharp twist. She heard his delighted laugh as he listened to ridiculous theories as to the coin’s origin. She watched his eyes stare into hers in silence as they picnic’d by a lake on a warm summers afternoon. She felt the warmth of his lips as he leaned towards her and kissed her gently for ever and ever. She closed her eyes again, letting the perfection of this crowd of images lift her gently up and float her away on the soft butterfly wings of memories.
When the stillness couldn’t be stretched out any longer, the abrupt and persistent beep beep beep of a battered travel clock on the mantlepiece snipped through the weave of silence and pulled Eve up from her past. Her eyelids retracted with a slow resignation and without turning her head she directed her gaze towards the clock. It’s face was scratched and buckled, the red mosaic numbers spread and bulged with each twist and crack, but she could still decipher the numbers through their bruises. “11.00AM”. Eve’s clock called out to her every day at the same hour. It gave her just enough time to pick her way through the woods, skirt through the valley that opened up on the other side and position herself on the low northern slopes beside the lake. It was shaded there and she had a clear view of the mouth of the chute, to watch the Dupes as they came tumbling out, one by one.
Eve rose stiffly from her armchair and moved across the room to the mantlepiece, to pat the little travel clock gently on it’s dusty top. The alarm stopped and the stillness momentarily took a hold in the room again, before Eve turned and began to assemble her things.
She pulled a pair of old trainers from under a wooden table, they were well worn and darkened by mud, but still solid and they felt warm and secure on her bare feet. Next she checked the contents of a child’s rucksack that was hooked up by the door. An almost empty plastic water bottle. A disposable lighter which she checked with a short strike and burn, a bundle of bandage and a rusted hunting knife with an 8 inch blade. She added to it a small green apple and some bread from the side. She nodded and clipped the bag shut, before swinging it onto her back and feeding both arms through the straps. The child’s cartoon animal which now hung on her back looked awkwardly out of place amidst all this dust and old age, but it guarded the contents anyway and bounced a little on Eve’s back every time she moved.
Eve glanced around the little room, checking that everything was as it should be and hoping that anything she had forgotten would jump out with her scan. When nothing did, she opened the flimsy door which shuddered as it came unstuck and stepped out into the late morning sun. It was cooler that she had thought, a fresh breeze was dancing through the trees and making their top leaves shimmer from dark green to silver. The breeze kissed her cheeks and combed playfully through her grey hair, welcoming her to the day and lifting her spirit one final step from dawn to day.
Eve took in the world that surrounded her, breathing all of it deep into her lungs and feeling it fill her chest and rush around every bone, fibre, capillary and nerve. As she exhaled her hand reached automatically behind her, pulled the door shut and she set off sharply into the forest, treading determinedly along the path that had waited for her all morning.
After a couple of minutes she came across the narrow stream that gave her the water she needed. It was almost completely obscured by the green shoots that arched languidly towards its flow, a casual passer by would have missed it completely - not that there ever were any out here.
Strangers never came this way. There was nothing on the map, it was miles from anywhere and the proximity of the chute - with it’s stinking breeze and nightmarish landscape - was enough to make most passers by detour. There had only ever been four visitors to Eve’s little wood in all the time she had been here.
There was the young couple who had appeared out of the trees one day, soaked through from the rain and looking like they hadn’t eaten in days. Eve had let them stay for a while whilst they regained their strength and worked out where they were headed next. They were full of new love and adventure and their energy flooded into the hut whilst they were there. When they left, Eve waived them off from her door, so enchanted by their smiling faces that she stood there long after their voices disappeared back into the trees. When she stepped back inside she picked his picture off the wall, curled up on the floor and wept like a child, the start of a deep depression that engulfed her for several days.
Then there were the two men who had knocked at her door, as the winter sun dipped behind the frosted trees one evening. They were dressed in heavy coats and stout boots, each with a knapsack and rifle slung over their shoulders. They had said they were lost, had been walking for days and needed some shelter for the night, so Eve let them in and gave them soup and spirit.
She could tell they weren’t Lifers. They clearly had money, and were too clean and freshly shaven to have been on the road for any length of time. Perhaps they were about to go over and were touring for sport before they did. Perhaps they were Drones from AarBee, keeping people away from power banks, server farms, the chute. Either way she didn’t trust them, if something bad didn’t happen to her she felt certain it would happen to someone else. So she waited until they were asleep, until their breathing fell into the rolling rhythm of deep slumber, and despatched them both with her hunting knife.
They rested now in the bluebell clearing just behind the hut, buried with their knapsacks and rifles. Eve hadn’t looked in their pockets or bags, she didn’t want to know.
The battered water bottle glugged as Eve plunged it deep under the river, turning deliberately against the flow. The surface was home to bugs, sticks and scum, the fresh water was deeper down and keeping the bottle turned away from the flow stopped the fry and animal droppings from drifting in.
She brought the bottle back up to the surface, held it up to the light and then drank the whole lot down. It was her first drink of the day and the water charged icily down her throat, washing away the dryness of the morning. She filled it a second time, checked it against the light again and twisted the top on firmly before tucking it into her backpack.
The path through the wood was abundant with summertime plants and smells. Broad green leaves lolloped at it’s edges, hiding the last puddles of dew under their canopy, whilst blades of grass shot up in the spaces and here and there little fuzzy yellow flowers and ivory white bells danced in the forest light.
Eve knew the path so well she made quick progress though the forest and was soon emerging into the sunshine that baked the slopes of the hill. Here the path grew dustier, almost disappearing into the rambling scrub and bushes. Eve spotted some sheep droppings and stopped to inspect them. It was fresh, which was good. The flock hadn’t been here for some days, they tended to move into the marshes when it was too hot, but if they were still nearby she might be able to catch one on her return. A sheep carcass would feed Eve for over a month and with the hide she could perhaps make some slippers for the coming winter.
As Eve moved around the foot of the hill the chute slowly crept into view, intensifying the stench in the air as it appeared. Eve brought a worn handkerchief from her pocket and wrapped it around her mouth and nose, tying a lose knot at the back of her head. It didn’t do very much, but it made her feel better. The stench was worst here, in the funnel between the two hills. When she moved further up the slope a little further along her path, the smell would ease and she would take the handkerchief off again, it was too suffocating in this heat.
Almost opposite her now, the metal chute glinted in the midday sun. It was a gigantic tongue lolling out from the smooth concrete wall. It would flex and lap to direct the Dupes to different parts of the slope, occasionally spasming to clear a path or shift a particularly stubborn corpse. But now, before it started, and as soon as it was done, it would hang limp from gluttony, drooling occasionally with the grease that kept it slippery and clean.
Eve found her perch and slowly sank down into the long grass. She had sat in this spot so often that a small patch had formed, cleared by the daily cover of her torso and nervous picking of her fingers. She opened her rucksack and took out the bread she had stored earlier, tore of a piece and swallowed it, before washing it down with a sip of the still cool river water.
On the other side of the lake a klaxon sounded three times, and the chute jerked in to life. It traced a broad arc from right to left as if it were furtively checking that no one was watching. But Eve was watching. She saw it’s underside push past a couple of Dupes and create a small avalanche of bodies as they tumbled out of it’s path. She watched it rise a little higher and stiffen, before vibrating slightly and drooling once more onto the hillside. She new they were coming.
* * *