Chapter One: Burnout
Astounded and wobbly sick, instead of raising the alarm Kate sleepwalked through the rest of her shift and then took herself home.
The heavy clack and thick miasma as she opened her front door no longer nauseated. Neither did the linen middens she had to high step over; even the crockery fermenting in the sink was comforting. Her habits were sculpting a modest landscape, a safe crack to hide in where she was destined to moulder quietly and become one with the carpet.
Shopping bags rattled. Sod the rest, the bottle of wine vanished, Kate cannonballed it. Migrating restlessly room to room with her glass to leave new burgundy circles as though re-marking territory. "Beating the bounds," it used to be called.
She caromed off sweaty walls and with low cunning left the lamps dark as evening dug in, denying what had been witnessed. Denying she could see at all. So far as tactics went it only congealed both the humidity and her anxiety, a pinch of cornstarch to the air.
Finally Kate capitulated. She coiled up in the lounge's debris, a python bloated with all she had no wish to know, and dialled her supervisor. A confidante would have been better but she had nobody else to tell. Took him long enough to pick up.
"It's Kate." Twisting the stem of her empty glass fitfully, already longing for more. Which was as sober Kate had predicted: that drunk Kate would get too smeary too quick to go back out. Not that anyone would sell to her in that state. Look at her, already having to grip the couch to stay propped. Smug sober Kate needed a slap. "I reviewed the material."
Supervisor Gary made polite sounds to cover disinterest, because that was his job. "Kate, hi. Wow. You're through the stack already?" It had been busy-work, the sort you dump on interns for long tedious hours to make them question squandering those university big bucks. "Is there some kind of problem?"
The line was so clear Kate could hear the idiot box squeal excitedly in the background, and knew Gary would be swivelled to fix an eye on it. Dinner interrupted, steaming on the coffee table. And every light blazing. Drive out the edges, the risk, the sullen grey.
She bit lightly at her glass. "You bet your ass in slacks there's a problem."
He sighed. Here we go. "Kate …"
"I found an anomaly. Where the burn's been through, I saw it on the composite image." Mouth stained she was already numbling the words. Hammer descending to bludgeon her out of her misery. "It looks like a town."
A clatter. The volume of the program's chipper squeaking came down like a hand clapped over a mouth. Their connection became so quiet that Kate could make out an aggressive hiss to the signal, had to hold it away from her head.
It was the sound of all that light storming through from his cosy home. If she were willing to get up she could scissor open the blinds and see it for herself out there in the urban distance; a star radiant in darkness. Instead she squeezed her eyes shut and her own grimy walls commenced swing dancing.
Supervisor Gary graced her with his return. "Kate, you're mistaken. You have to be. There's nothing out there."
Red rag to a bull. "Well there isn't any more, Gary! I've got the images spread across my kitchen bench right now. The fire front gutted it."
"Honestly Kate, how often do we have to go through this? You can't be taking confidential material home."
"Seriously? What if there were people? A bushfire like that, they couldn't have got out! They wouldn't have stood a chance!"
"Ah, jeeze—you're crying, aren't you? Please, please stop." He would be squinting at the clock, hung in a showroom kitchen where light twinkled off every surface. "Are you drunk Kate, is that it?"
"I'm not crying! For fuck's sake!"
But she was. Had to poke herself in the face to realise.
The damp misty cloud that surrounded Kate, that she was sunk in, where all was grey, grey, grey, stirred curiously. It knew crying. Understood the gesture but was having trouble coupling it to emotion. Was her body being sad without her?
In her mind Kate privately called the deadening grey phenomenon the seep, because folk love using fancy names to claim things solely as their own.
The seep was a curtain that dropped. A thickening, a floundering between her and the world. So real, to Kate at least, that even in this heat she could feel water droplets beading on her cheeks. The seep arrived in its own time but could be more reliably poured from a bottle.
She touched her confounding tears. A town. A whole town. Nobody would have stood a chance.
Supervisor Gary was droning on in her ears but the hiss of light burgeoned nastily over him as though she had stepped on its nest. Assaulting ears rather than eyes, viciously biting her face until she gave up and terminated the call.
Silence. That was better, in the smothering suck of her thoughts.
As Kate lay there the wet caul of alcohol slowed even them. Slowed. Until all was quiet and dark.
Chapter Two: Occupied
The humidity stubbornly failed to break the next day, squelching wilted optimism that had hoped it'll all be better come morning. The mantra of the trapped. Only idiots thought like that anymore.
The dawn commute became a jostling sweaty killer. By quarter past eight the corporate washroom was packed solid by crumpled wage slaves and couriers, sink-baths shoulder to shoulder. It was like visiting a safari waterhole.
Hell for anyone who might be hiding out in a cubicle after a rough night, just trying to shift a post-binge brick in peace.
By nine fifteen they all bustled away and it was safe for Kate to emerge. The ruin they left behind looked like the apocalypse had been. Every scrap of toilet paper and towel had been soiled, spilling and looping from the trashcan. The mirrors wore enough makeup to start their own TV show. The cleaners were going to weep.
The clattering office was the same as always, which Kate found eerie. As though nothing of note had been uncovered yesterday, nothing changed. Possibly the stupefying air was to blame: the cheap institutional carpet smell had to be rinsed from her hair and clothes at the end of each day so as not to spread it about at home and spoil what she had brewing there.
Kate perched in Gary's guest chair and swivelled, with lazy sweeps of her legs, to make the bearings scream. Back, pause, and forth. Mainly because it ought to drive him bonkers, it would drive any sane soul bonkers.
But Gary never tipped over the edge. Just kept glancing with long-suffering martyrdom at the framed portrait of his family, his daughter's crappy sketches of sunbeams. Give me strength, Gary's tight lips implored.
And apparently they did, which was novel. Most succumbed to management as a last ditch effort to get away from home life. Easier to think of sunbeams and portraits from a distance and pretend to love them more.
"It's not like I'm saying you're wrong, Kate. I'm not saying that. But no-one has been able to verify what you say you saw."
"What I 'say.'"
Not a whisker out of place in his sincerity, like supervision was something he'd studied in acting school.
Kate had woken with an inflamed brain to scour her flat top to bottom. The images she had poured over last night were gone. Not even a trace, which sent her into an inconsolable rage at drunk Kate. Or was there a chance somebody had been in her rooms?
Kate's neighbours were nameless sardines packed on all sides, their lives transmitting in queer ways through the building. She scarcely recalled those early days when she had first moved in: bleary exhaustion from bolting awake at every whimper or bang. That level of terror alert could not be sustained. Nowadays an intruder could probably clomp to her bed and poke a finger right up her nose.
Still, Kate's native habitat was easy territory to get lost in, beginning to resemble a prime time episode of When Hoarders Attack. A little early to be blaming, yet, a little late to be leaving for work. So she had hurried out the door, only to find that printing a fresh copy was not on the cards either.
What are you talking about? the computer queried innocently, tempting her to put her fist through its sly screen. Those same codes that had unearthed the town now returned a bird's eye view of trees, trees and more trees. A swathe of blackened ash right through the middle that no services had scrambled to save because there was nothing out there. There never had been.
But there had. Drunk Kate knew it for sure, stirring deep down in the depths where she was lurking.
"So give me something to work with, then. Get me some proof." That was how things worked in Garyland: nice, clean cut and simple, like popping to the shops.
At least he had the grace not to mention her blubbering down the phone. The expectation it would not happen again could remain just as elegantly unsaid.
Kate returned to her foxhole numbly. Acutely aware in the bustle how everyone around her had an actual job to do, burrowed into it like ticks. Not that she needed a single one of these assmonkeys to believe her claim.
The break room boasted a corkboard where between charity raffles staff could tack up screenshots of weird shit. Configurations resembling a cock and balls were predictably popular. It was a shrine to imaging software hiccups and humanity's hardwired desperation to see meaning in anything.
Picking up the phone to the council failed to yield gold. "Honey, I'm not sure what to tell you except there's no town there. Sure you're not getting your sites skewiff?"
The list stretched long, but there were few things Kate loathed more than pet names from strangers. "Is there anything nearby?"
"According to these files, state sponsored a kind of research institute for a while, the Karrik Institute, but it's been long closed. More's the pity the fire didn't go there—would have saved a tidy heap in maintenance."
Long deep breaths, Kate. Gritting her teeth, because people rarely realised how utterly infuriating they were. Oh sure, a boxy government installation and an orderly constellation of residences could look so similar. Not worth getting in a flap over.
The hot barb of curiosity up her ass would not let her sit still. Did she know what she saw? Suspicious that drunk Kate knew more than she was letting on, crucial memory sluiced away by wine.