“Something’s moving down there, Boss.”
“Ha ha. No. I’m turning around to get a better look.”
“Don’t break my copter.”
Human ears could not have heard the voices that were coming from the strange machine in the sky, but in the tall grass something did, and it listened.
“Was it a gazelle?”
“Nope, but maybe around the same size. Dark body.”
The machine moved silently, with slowly rotating propellors and a swollen gasbag of a body. It was colored dull black, and there didn’t appear to be any windows in the small cockpit. Instead the lenses of cameras winked like eyes all around its exterior.
Reclining inside the cabin of the machine was a dark-skinned man. He had one hand covering a small microphone while he reached into a crinkling plastic bag.
“Are you eating in my copter?”
“Nope,” said the man, addressing a speaker set into the cabin wall. He quickly shoved something into his mouth and glanced at a row of monitors set above the speaker. “I’m zooming in on the thing.”
“Sure it’s not an elephant? If it’s an elephant, you’d be in the news.”
“Oh, yeah, a wild elephant. Sure. Aren’t we supposed to be looking for people?”
“Hey, discovering an extinct species is also important.”
“Why don’t you go to a z- Hey! Hey!”
“What? An elephant?”
“Not an elephant, Boss! A dog! A big ol’ dog!”
“A dog? Out there?”
“Oh man, it spotted me. It’s running away. I’m following it, Boss.”
Silence from the speaker. The man turned the machine, which hovered effortlessly in the air, and chased the dark streak over the waving grass.
“You’re too far away for me to pick up your visual feed,” said the speaker, after a short while.
“It’s definitely a dog. Weird-looking, though. Big round ears and a kind of… kind of a dappled coat.”
A breathy, excited sound came through the speaker. “Seriously? Seriously? Has it got a white tip on the tail?”
“Yeah, why, what is it?”
“That’s better than an elephant! That’s a wild dog! Follow it, man!”
“I’m following,” said the man. “What do you mean, better than an elephant? Is it another extinct species?”
“They don’t even have those in zoos,” said the voice. “I’ve only seen pictures of them. If you can find more-”
“Hold up, Boss. I lost sight of it. Ducked under an embankment. I’m circling around.”
There was a terse moment as the black machine swung slowly around in the air, ruffling the leaves of a stunted tree as it passed overhead.
“It can’t be far…”
“What quadrant are you in?”
“I dunno, city number seventeen or something. I can’t look it up right now.”
“Yeah, you know.” Discomfort crossed the man’s face, and he gestured weakly at the speaker.
“Stay up from the mines, then. There’s bound to be some anti-aircraft charges that are still functional.”
“I know what I’m doing, Boss. I’ve done city runs before. Everything’s dead.”
“You mean, the mines?”
“Sure, the mines.” The man covered his microphone again as he reached for another snack, splitting a seed between his teeth. “But hey, it’s okay. The big ones on top issued a formal apology.”
“I’m sure they all appreciate it.” The voice had darkened.
The man laughed. “Glad we’re not allowed to land here, Boss. I wouldn’t do it.”
“You believe in ghosts?”
“Oh, come on.”
“But you believe in elephants.”
“I’ve seen in elephant.”
“I guarantee that if you put one foot on the ground down there, you’ll believe in ghosts, too.”
The black machine glided slowly around, making ever-widening circles. It was too modern to make anything like a mechanical hum; it was odd, because sometimes the man found himself longing for the sound.
“Did you find it again?” The female voice reemerged from the speaker.
“No. I don’t know how the hell it got away… Oh, oh, I see it! Wait a minute! There are more!”
“Don’t get in close! You’ll scare them!”
“I’m coming up and around. There’s a whole bunch of them. Looks like they’re eating something. ”
“No, doesn’t look like a gazelle. I’m trying to zoom in but their heads are all in the way. Gosh, they’re covered in blood…”
“The law of nature, my man.”
“Yeah… Think I see the head- Oh, God! Oh, God, no!”
“What? What do you see?”
The man had put a hand over his mouth, covering up a choking noise. The voice from the speaker sounded concerned.
“Are you okay? Something happen?”
“They’re eating a person,” the man managed to say. “They’re eating a human, Boss. A lady.”
“I wouldn’t joke about this.” Now the man balled one hand into a fist. “I’m gonna go down and shoot these suckers.”
“Don’t! Don’t do that! They’re only animals. That lady might have already been dead-”
“They’re eating her, Boss!”
“It’s not going to help her if you shoot them! If it’s really a person, you’ve got to find out where she came from. Pull back and search. Do not shoot them.”
The man’s hand hovered over the controls a moment, then he swore. “Fucking animals.”
The machine rose higher. In the grass below, some of the dogs raised their bloody faces.
“I’m sweeping out,” said the man. His voice had gotten dull.
“Any chance you could track where they came from?”
“Don’t know. They’re kind of at the edge of a scrub forest… wait a minute.”
“You see something?”
The man said nothing, manipulating the controls so the machine glided further forward. His eyes were fixed on the screen in front of him.
“Hey,” said the disembodied voice. “Hey. Roba.”
“I don’t know what I’m seeing,” said the man. His throat worked. “I don’t… what the hell is this?”
“Calm down. We knew this would be a hard area. Just try…”
“You don’t understand.” The man opened his mouth and licked his lips. A tear slid down his dark cheek. “Boss, there are- there are people down there.”
“People?” The voice caught in a strange way. “How many?”
The man swiped away his tear. “A lot. God… at least forty or fifty. I see children.”
“Amazing,” breathed the voice.
They stayed quiet for a moment. The man pressed his face into his hands and trembled, breathing deeply.
“There are a lot of dogs with them, too.”
“I guess you don’t mean domestic dogs.”
“No. Wild dogs. There are a hundred or more of those suckers down there. It’s unbelievable.”
“How are the people reacting? Are they under attack?”
“Wonder if the lady you saw was from this group.”
“There’s something strange, Boss. Something’s not right down there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… I mean.” The man’s brow furrowed, creasing his face. “The dogs… I guess the people are familiar with them, because I can see them petting them. Some of them are carrying puppies.”
“Cute,” interrupted the voice.
“They don’t seem scared, and the dogs are surrounding them… Why the hell were they eating a lady, though?”
“She must have just died,” said the voice. “Maybe that’s how they dispose of their dead. We’ve been separated from these people for a long time, so of course they have different customs. To think that they domesticated wild dogs…”
The man fiddled with the joystick. “I don’t know about that.”
“What do you mean?”
The man raised one shoulder, a certain reluctance in his action. “Something’s still weird. I… I’m picking up some strange sounds on the monitor.”
“Let me hear them.”
At once the man reached out and twisted a knob. The small cabin suddenly filled up with a bizarre din of sounds: whining, chattering, like the voices of a thousand birds, almost maddening to hear. And yet it was not quite like hearing birds, because from time to time the human ear could catch a kind of twist into something more familiar: a definite word.
The man turned the knob back down.
“What the hell was that?”
“It’s the dogs, Boss,” said the man, gazing at his monitor. “They’re definitely the ones doing that. I don’t see any people talking at all.”
“Wonder how they can stand it. I’m already getting a headache.”
“Looks like they’re all about to move.”
“About to move? Didn’t you say there were fifty people and a hundred dogs?”
“The dogs in front are moving. The people are following. They’re carrying things- not just puppies, but things that look like they’re made out of straw- tents or beds, maybe? Oh, and I didn’t mention this before, but they’re all naked.”
“It’s hot out there, I guess.”
“Ah- I see more dogs. Jackals. They’re trailing behind the convoy.”
“There’s a bunch of them with things in their mouths… they’re getting awfully close… I don’t believe this.”
“Should I even ask what?”
“Boss. The jackals put down a bunch of fruit on the ground. The wild dogs took it.”
“Wild dogs eat fruit…?”
“Now a bunch of them are- looks like they’re sick. Yeah. They’re throwing up, and- ugh. The jackals are eating it.”
“Some of the people are taking the fruit out of the dogs’ mouths. Lots of pushing and shoving. Ah! A dog just bit someone!”
“No, but it scared me, the way he jumped. It’s gotten quiet. They’re giving the fruit to the children.”
“The people are?”
“The dogs are.”
A crackling sound came from the speaker, as if the owner of the voice was shifting. “I’m going to have to see this video when you get back.”
“I’m not lying.”
“Oh, I don’t think you are. This is too insane.”
The machine hovered a little lower, its black belly sagging towards the trees.
“Something funny about their eyes, Boss.”
“Why do you jump to jaundice…? Anyway, if that’s it, it’s bad freaking jaundice. The whites of their eyes are black.”
A disgusted noise came from the speaker. “Don’t fly too close.”
“Not planning on it…” The machine rose again, swinging wide over the forest. “I can’t believe this. This is some convoy… And it looks like they’ve been traveling a lot. There’s a stripped-down trail behind them.”
The man just licked his lips at this. “I’m going to scout out more of the area.”
“How close are you to the city?”
“Not far. A hundred kilometers or so.”
“You should swing over it.”
“I mean to.”
The machine skimmed through the clouds, strangely graceful for all its broad-bellied decadence. The dark skin seemed to absorb the sunlight, and gentle puffs of gas wafted out of its vents.
“No, but it’s another stripped down trail. Crosses the first. It looks like there’s more than one of these convoys out there.”
“Really? That must mean… that’s a lot of people. Can you believe this? How did they survive? What are they eating?”
“A hundred people is a hell of a lot less than fourteen million,” said the man.
“Oh… yes. That… is true.”
“Thought it was. Just two hyenas eating a gazelle. Oh, there’s the minefield.”
“Careful flying over it.”
“It’s fine. Looks like a lot of it’s been dug up. God knows how.”
“I’m pretty sure they thought of that when they put them down there in the first place. Wasn’t this like… a big dog area, or something?”
“Well, it certainly is now.”
“I mean, I thought this city had some kind of special dog thing.”
“You can’t even remember the name.”
“I’ll look it up,” muttered the man. “It’s all sand out here.”
“Makes sense. That’s why they cut it off in the first place… desertification.”
“I see some more tracks. Another convoy. This one seems smaller.”
“See any buildings yet?”
“Not yet. Just sand. I’m going to follow this trail a minute…”
Eyes on the monitor, the man took a sloppy handful out of the plastic bag and crammed it in his mouth. The speaker didn’t comment on the sounds.
“I see them! It is smaller.”
“Dogs and people again?”
“Yeah… More than just wild dogs, but I can’t tell what kind those are. Oh, and…” The man’s voice suddenly rose an octave.
“I think that those are lions. Yeah. Definitely lions. Following the dogs around.”
“Planning to eat them?”
“Boss, I just saw a dog throw up some meat for one.”
A very odd sound came from the speaker. “Seriously?”
“Ah, I see some buildings. They’re buried in the sand. Just the tops are sticking out… Man. These look like skyscrapers.”
Both of them grew quiet for a time, as the machine glided between the squarish buildings: the tops of skyscrapers, half-eaten by the relentless desert.
“This place looks gutted. I see fire damage everywhere.”
“Anyone living there?”
“Don’t see how anybody could. It’s all sand. I see some tracks going out, but none coming back in. There can’t be any water there anymore.”
“Incredible,” muttered the voice. “I guess… well, maybe it’s better that way. Buried.”
“A mass grave, boss?”
“I just said what you were thinking. I’m glad the sand is that deep. Maybe it’ll hold down all those ghosts. And elephants.”
The voice was soft. “Elephants are extinct in the wild.”
“Well, we thought people and wild dogs were too.”
The machine circled round and round, tracing paths between buildings, streets now covered by sand. It passed a building with yellow stripes, turned down between two rows with broken windows and many crumpled awnings.
“What are we going to say to people?” said the voice, after a long silence.
“About what? About there people living people, even though they’re all supposed to be dead? Even though they already apologized for all that?” The man laughed, but not in an amused way.
“Yeah, that, I guess. And the dogs…”
“They’re not going to care about the dogs.”
“I wonder if they should.”
“Whether or not they should, they won’t.”
“Damn, boss, I’m flying over a place where our ancestors told fourteen million people they should starve to death for the greater good.”
The speaker crackled at length, then: “Point.”
The man chuckled, then frowned. “I see something moving down there.”
“I can’t wait to find out what it is this time.”
“Don’t get excited. It looks like it’s just a man and a dog.”
“Seems that way. His eyes look all right. The dog is limping a bit.”
“A wild dog?”
“Yeah, but… It’s a little strange. All the other dogs had sticky-up ears. This one… this one’s got floppy ears.”
“You sure it’s a wild dog?”
“Pretty sure. It’s kind of cute, actually.”
“Don’t get too caught up, Roba.”
“I’m moving away. The man is looking up. His eyes are definitely normal. He’s limping too. He’s got a cane.”
“Not that old… a young adult.”
“Maybe we should say hello.”
“I think I’ll leave that to the experts.” The machine turned and slipped through another set of buildings. Slowly it carved out its way through the sandy maze, mapping out what remained of the city. The two small figures seemed to be the only living things there.
“Anything of interest?”
“Hmm. I see a big old billboard. Analog.”
“That’s nostalgic. What’s it advertising, nutrient cream?”
“Kind of a sick joke for right now, yeah…? Anyway, it’s all torn up. Looks like somebody attacked it.”
The voice now had a sullen edge to it. “Maybe they didn’t like what was being advertised.”
“I think it used to be a lady’s face, so maybe you were right… hey. It looks like somebody scratched something into it. I’m going in closer.”
The machine glided down, closer to the billboard, which sat flush against the sand, its steel supports long since buried. The tattered remains of the canvas it had once held flapped in the wind. It was covered in a series of deep, reddish gashes.
“Definitely letters. I can read them.”
“What does it say?”
“The spelling is really bad… ‘Im stiill heere, mutho’.”
“Uh… is that… ‘I’m still here, Mother’?”
“Yeah. I’m still here, Mother.”
“Strange thing to put on a billboard.”
“I’m still here, Mother?”
“I’m still here, Mother.”