Ghost City

By K M Lawrence

Tesh runs through the ghost city, his shadow through the human one. A clatter of footsteps follows him, and angry voices that surge and fall back like hounds before a hunt. In the ghost city he is running through the cut scrub-brush that surrounded the northern nest. It was unused - the family that lived there had relocated to the outpost at Adamsville rather than the main human settlement - but Tesh's brother included it anyway. The ghost city wouldn't have been whole without it. His shadow falls over stacks of empty gas cylinders and oil drums.

"We can walk," Tesh remembers his brother saying, "in the crowded bars, in the quiet cathedrals, in the rubble of failure and in the shining corridors of success. Our one advantage is that we go unseen."

He wishes he was unseen now. Clutching his goggles to stop them slipping off his face he darts left onto a dirt road edged with sharp stones. His shadow, meanwhile, runs over the corrugated metal walls of a back alley. He wonders whether his pursuers know why they are chasing him. Did they see him tampering with the network node, or are they just more bored thugs from the mines?

His brother did not mean, of course, that they were invisible to the newcomers, but that the humans could actively unsee them. There was a blind spot in their vision - an unfortunate fluke of evolution where the wiring of their eyes cut through the retina. Their teacher (a newcomer herself, of course) had laughed when she'd told them about it, and remarked that there was one unquestionable advantage that the locals had over the colonists. At the time he'd been proud of it. As he grew older, though, he saw that the humans had done what they were good at - they had turned a necessity into a virtue. They could focus the blindspot just as easily as they could focus their vision, so that anything that displeased them was hustled into that little dead zone to fade from their mind.

Case in point - as he dashes out of the back alley and across Landfall Street he sees a family of newcomers standing in the middle of the road, looking up at city hall. The building is new - locally fired mud bricks up to the first floor, a concession to the traditional style, then ship-metal above that. On the steps of the building stands the statue of harmony - a newcomer and a local caught in the instant of greeting. The newcomer has his thick hands clasped around the local's skinny digits, making it look to Tesh as though he is trapping his companion in place. In the ghost city the statue is hidden beneath the carved block that had once stood in the old town meeting hall. The newcomer mother looks around, and for a second she is looking into Tesh's eyes. Then with a blink she shifts him into her blindspot. He runs on.

His brother's plan relied on this. They would rebuild the town in a virtual layer above the human settlement, something that they could see when they were wearing their goggles. Everything that was now lost beneath the mining rigs and slag heaps, everything they had had to leave behind to move into their apartments on the outskirts. They could fit a home into the blindspot in the newcomer's computer network.

His shadow stretches out before him, thrown long by the setting sun. There was a word in the old language that meant a time between evening and sunset - lighter than twilight, not as light as the afternoon. The precise meaning eludes him, and the word itself save that it began with the letter Thilk, the same as his name. It is that time now. He knows from the burning in his spiracles and the dull ache in his legs that he cannot outrun the gang. It does not matter. He is close.

"We may have been given a place to live," his brother said. "But we have lost a place to be ourselves. We have lost a place to hatch, a place to eat, a place to talk of our matters and argue about our pasts. They can never be the same, but at least our models can give us a sense of our own places here."

Ahead there is a dead end formed by the intersection between three prefab factory modules. Tesh's shadow slows to a halt in the centre of it, lying across the rubberised metal pavement, its head resting on a discarded paint can. Other shadows appear. They grow towards his, surround it.

But Tesh does not watch. He is in the ghost city. His brother has done a good job, he thinks. Their family nest looks just the way he remembers it, cosy and light. He can almost touch the crushed leaves and the brick platforms, smell the scent of crushed seeds and smoke eels, hear the sounds of the town. It was a good place to be born, he thinks, and with that thought he remembers the word he had forgotten.

It was just a matter of being in the right place one last time.

Originally written to read at TFFCon, 13th July 2012