The iron grate gave a grinding squeal before clattering onto the cobblestones. Chez climbed from the stormwater drain and into an alley that was bathed in the pre dawn darkness. He had seen much in his thirteen years; perhaps more than any thirteen year old before him.
He walked with caution down the alley sliding his fingertips along the old brick wall as a guide, until he came out onto George Street and the glow of the transients’ fires. Burning garbage cans lined the cluttered footpaths, lighting the way North and South. As soon as he had that light he began running north, towards the harbour and the Circular Square.
The air was cold against his face as he sprinted down the broken street, past the rusted car bodies and the shattered shopfronts long ago looted of anything useful. Past the grand old Town Hall where the Vols hung out sniffing glues, solvents or anything else they could scrounge from the corpse of the city. Past the fallen dome of the Queen Victoria Building, the once beautiful landmark now a burned out skeleton. Chez kept running, ignoring these distractions and the burning in his chest. He had to make it to the top of the square. They were all depending on him.
Nan had told him, “Today is the day, Chez, I can feel it. You have to be our eyes now. Run and don’t stop until you reach the top of the Circular Square.”
Chez ran down the length of the shattered streetscape, passing the empty buildings that had made up the, once proud, city of Sydney. He could not imagine what those days were like. How these glass and concrete ghosts were filled with people. There was plenty in those days and people either thought or pretended that it would last forever. It didn’t.
“It was foretold that there would be terrible times in the last days and they were terrible times indeed,” Nan had told him.
“Today is the day, Chez, I can feel it.” Nan’s voice in his mind strengthened him and soon he could feel the others.
As he ran beneath the starless sky, others entered his thoughts, like guests arriving at a feast. Each arrival brought with them a recollection, a moment in time that they had shared together, and by it he recognised them..
There was Dredge and Stalk who had recently managed to raid a stash of old canned goods from the Hyde Park Rangers. None of the cans had labels but most of them had rip tabs on top making them easy to open. The group sat around a fire on the underground platform at Museum Station, opening tins and exchanging contents until everyone had eaten their fill. Then Chez had opened one more can, just to see what was in it, and there were these orange balls chopped in half, floating in thick yellow liquid.
“What’s this?” he asked Nan.
Her eyes lit up at the sight of the apricot halves. She insisted he share them with everyone else but there was not enough for Nan or himself.
“That’s okay,” she said with a smile. “You have the juice.”
He had sipped the nectar of the apricots and it was like heaven. He drank it slowly, savouring the sweet draught until it was all gone and he cut his tongue trying to lick the last few drops of syrup out of the tin.
As each new mind arrived they took the place around the memory.
There was Darl whom Chez had a crush on, but he kept those feelings hidden from the others. She smiled at him as she had that day and he blushed.
Nan’s voice in his mind suddenly brought him back to the ravaged streets. “You’re nearly at the Square.”
Up ahead stood Australia Square, the cylindrical tower silhouetted against the lightening sky. Leaping over a low wall where a long dead garden had been, he cut across the courtyard to the foot of the old cylindrical skyscraper. Moving swiftly through the vacant window frames and over the debris in the circular foyer, Chez bypassed the defunct lifts and headed to the centre of the tower. Forcing open the fire door, he slipped inside, feeling his way around the walls of the pitch black, musty stairwell. He didn’t have long before dawn and he still had the stairs ahead of him. Forty eight floors to negotiate, one step at a time.
Floor by floor Chez rose, using the hand rail to haul himself up. He felt the collective mind of his family and he drew enough strength to keep going. He had to get as high as he could if he was going to see it. It was hard going in the dark and by the time he counted the fortieth floor he began to question whether he had not gone high enough. Nan’s voice in his head and the expectations of his peers drove him on anyway.
They were all there now, a dozen minds as familiar to him as his own, and all seeing through his eyes.
Finally he reached the observation deck with its panoramic view of the city. The dirty grey sky had lightened enough for him to make out the harbour and its landmarks. The rusting Bridge, supported on its stained sandstone pillars. The grime covered sails of the Opera House, now an island seemingly afloat on the risen tide.
The sky was brightening still further, revealing more of the cities decay. Buildings that had once blocked the view of the eastern horizon were now fallen, the result of catastrophic fires before Chez was born. He could see all the way to the silhouetted Sydney Heads, like dark lions guarding the mouth of the harbour. He waited and watched the eastern skyline, as more and more detail was revealed.
Suddenly there was a green flash, like a distant signal light over the ocean. A slash of red-orange light grew from that place, splashing colour across the clouds, painting the sky with crimson brush-strokes. It was beautiful beyond his ability to articulate. Had the others not been there in his mind he would have experienced it alone.
The bright rent grew wider but no higher as the sun emerged, passing through the slit between the horizon and the permanent cloud cover. Nonetheless, the sight was irrefutable; there was a gap in the cloud, a break that allowed that hopeful splash of colour to escape.
In his life, Chez had never seen beyond the Earth’s constant grey shroud. He had never seen the sun, the moon, the stars. His whole life had been lived in a monochrome world of asphalt and concrete.
When the dirty rain fell, which was often, it was unwise to go out, the drops raising ugly welts on the skin.
“I told you this day would come, didn’t I children. At last the earth has forgiven us,” Nan’s voice echoed through his mind and through the abandoned rail station where she was gathered with the others.
As quickly as it had appeared, the sun hid itself behind that grey sheet and Chez felt a momentary desire to weep; He resisted the urge.
One by one, just as they had come, the minds of his peers began withdrawing until he and Nan were alone with his thoughts.
“My dear boy, don’t be troubling yourself. There’ll be plenty more sunrises like that to see,” she promised. “The story doesn’t end here. No, this is just a breath taken by the Great Teller before he continues the story of his grandchildren. Thirty years I’ve been waiting for him to pick up his pen again and write.”
“Why did he stop writing?” Chez asked.
“Ahh, well to understand that I’ve got to tell you about the Tellers children.” Chez sat on the moth-eaten carpet and listened as Nan explained.
“Long before my mother’s, mother’s, mother, the Teller created the world and filled it with his children. All the children of the Teller had warred bloodily over the world until the Teller could take it no more. He divided the world of his children into three kingdoms, giving each an animal spirit to watch over and guide them. These spirits were called Uussar, Usay and Chin.
Uussar was a beast, covered in fur befitting his kingdom in the North. In the winter the rain falls like ashes and the water grows hard. He treated his people harshly, working them until they could work no more, and his kingdom grew.
Now Usay was an eagle and lived in the west. He offered his people anything their hearts wanted, he fed their greed and grew fat on their excesses.
One day, the people of Uussar’s kingdom could take no more and tore down the wall that the bear had made around them. Beyond the wall they saw the wonders of the west. The freedoms and allure of the lights that shone so bright beyond that wall.
But Chin was a dragon and lived in the east. He had trusted in his brother Uussar’s advice and many died trying to live up to his brother’s example. In the end, Chin took on the making of things for the children of the Teller, and grew rich.
When the Teller saw how Usay let his children run amok, he drove his pen into the earth and called forward the fire from beneath. Usay died in the plains of Yellowstone and the smoke of her burning reached the heavens, and the sky went black.
Many mourned the fall of Usay, but some of the Teller’s children rejoiced saying, see how he corrupted the world. His deeds have unmade him.”
Chez heard the great peel of thunder that had rolled around the world, saw the pictures in his mind of the creeping black sky.
“Chin saw the fall of the Eagle and began to war upon the children of the Teller. All those who had allied themselves to Usay felt lost and they turned to the dragon, saying save us. But the old world was broken and could not be fixed. The dragon enslaved almost all of the teller’s children, those that had not fallen to the terrible days of that story’s end. Of Chin’s fate, we know nothing.”
Chez felt the chains of the people, chains of knowledge, chains of exposure. The dragon knew everything about everyone. It was a world of eyes, without secrets or refuge.
“Here,” She continued, “in the kingdom of Auz, we had our own problems to contend with. The Teller’s pen had driven through the earth and brought hell-fire up on the other side of the ditch. The Kiwi’s were gone and their screams made a wave that baptised the east of our land. It washed away our greed, and bathed our eyes that we could see our madness..
“Since then, Chin has been silent, the north lost to us in that great Crash.”
“Now the Teller will write the world once more. His scattered children will hear his call and will come to be a part of the story. They will come to chill at last and live with what they still have.”