“WE should head home.”
Petey nudged me with his shoe. Sunlight failed to breach the clouds most days, so it was really more like the shadow of his shoe. To look at it, it was without substance – a lot like Petey.
I glanced up. The sky was leaden: dark, pregnant with thunder and possibly rain. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing. It could go months without a drop or an entire year’s worth might hammer the parched earth in just a few hours. I heard rumbling in the distance but it didn’t have the rich timbre of thunder.
“Jimbo’s working on his tunnel again.” Jimbo spent a lot of time playing with the excavator he’d tinkered into life. I watched it once. Great metal teeth gnawed at the growing maw, spewing dirt and heat as if Jimbo were boring a hole straight into hell. He said it would protect him from ghost-lights and data-loops.
The racket was as bad as the thick black cloud that puffed from the excavator’s exhaust. Thunk. Shoosh. Thunk. Whomp.
Right now I could just make out the thumps. Petey stood and gazed out to sea. I was sprawled on the brittle grass but I knew he was staring at the lights twinkling way out from the shore. Ghost-lights. They were all that remained of ships that would never sail through the heads into port: afterimages of vessels blinked out of existence back when the glitch had vanished everything electronic from the world. Gran said her “fone” and “telly” and “conpooter” and some “world-wide tentacles” thing hadn’t stopped or died, but had simply disappeared as if they never existed. Sometimes I wished Petey would disappear as if he never existed.
“Sandman’ll be around soon to flick the wicks.” Petey’s shadow turned and kicked my shoe again. “Don’t wanna end up like Bob.” A shiver that had nothing to do with the weather raced up my spine and made my head shimmy like a wet dog. Bob had been caught out after the Sandman came to spark the streetlights into tiny golden flames before the full-dark. The skeletons of the old lights still arched their skinny necks high above the potholed streets but the ghosts living in them had forgotten how to shine. We found Bob clinging to one of the ghost-light poles after the full-dark had turned to half-dark. His eyes were silvery orbs and he didn’t hear us calling his name. He was climbing to nowhere and shouting about things written on some wall in a book of faces. We knew he’d been caught in a data-loop but nobody could say if or when he might get flung back out again.
Loops were like memories from the never-more before the glitch remade everything. They winked into existence without warning, trapping those caught out after full-dark inside their own thoughts and beyond our reach. Bob was wasting away while his mind was held captive in a phantom world that ceased to exist when Gran was younger than I was now.
We only knew of one person that had escaped a never-more loop: Mollie Havershell. She was lost for more than a year when the loop suddenly spat her out and she woke up demanding breakfast and something called a pea-hess-for. Nobody knew what she was prattling about but the human resources agency had informed her family that she was no longer required to hand in her card to be ticked. She was what we call “loopy” now: prone to disappearing into her own mind at times, although she always comes back soon enough and raving about strange things that make no sense to us. Bob had only been gone a few months. There was still hope for him. But, even if the loop spat him, he’d never be wholly Bob again.
“Sandman!” Petey’s shadow grabbed my hand and yanked me to my feet. He hauled me along the edge of the street where the gutter was supposed to channel the absent rain into drains meant to dump it into the sea. It was the only part left without gaps and holes.
I glanced behind to see the little yellow light of the Sandman’s lantern bobbing down the hill towards us. The man, himself, was nice enough. It was what his job represented that made my skin crawl with fire ants. Full-dark. Little flashes of sparks burst behind the clouds in the west while the brooding clouds in the east simply disappeared into pitch. The data-loops roamed the pitch: ice pale lights that winked on and off, randomly appearing and disappearing along a haphazard path. Inside the light, like Gran’s no-globe back home, you could see the afterimage of a world that no longer existed, like a negative imprint of the shadows and blight that afflicted us.
Petey squealed and dropped my hand. He just vanished. I hadn’t meant it about him disappearing. Honestly. I looked for him but he was relegated to shadow in a fast-fading landscape. The Sandman’s bobbing light swooped – not that the wan glow revealed much.
Ghost-light stole Petey’s shadow as a data-loop opened between us, and the Sandman’s lantern exploded into bright fog. Spidery veins of shimmering mercury webbed the fog and trapped the light, dancing with iridescent sparks. I vaguely heard shouting but everything outside the loop was darker than pitch.
Images scrolled across my vision in colours I never knew existed: millions of technocolours. Sunlight bedazzled a golden beach and there was a pale pearl on a nest of black, dotted with glittering specks that shimmered. Water cascaded from the lip of ridge into a swirling pool that defied description. Birds squawked and swooped in a clear sky. I poked at an image and was sucked into a place of green fields and soft music, where I rode a purple dragon through a swarm of flutter-wings in search of treasure-diamonds in a pea-hess-for.