How can a world like this even exist? There’s not even anything to burn, not grass, not trees, just the earth itself wreathed in crimson flame. There are no stars. No moon. Just fire below and darkness above.
This is stupid. We heard a voice in a cave and now we’re marching across the least hospitable land I’ve ever encountered. We’ll probably die out here. It’s not as if there’s anything to eat or drink, and the heat has me dripping with sweat.
We should have stayed in the cave.
But that voice... it compelled me. Irresistible, powerful, but more importantly, it moved me on without me feeling the call. Maybe, just maybe, if I found it, it could send me home.
“What do you think it was?” I ask Hayley, raising my voice over the constant, maddening crackle of the flaming land. We stopped holding hands a while ago. “The voice, I mean?”
“God?” she replies. I can’t tell if she’s being sarcastic or not. “I don’t know,” she continues, “but it doesn’t matter. The voice knew about us, what’s happening to us. We have to find it, don’t we? How could we not? I don’t know about you, but I need answers.”
Her thoughts echo my own. We follow the path through the flames for - I don’t know how long - as the heat dries our throats and skin, but the bottles in our packs only hold so much water, so we resist the urge to glug them down and instead get by on small, unsatisfying sips.
Our path leads us up onto a low, flaming hill, and as we reach the top, we both stop, awed despite our exhaustion. The hellscape stretched out before us is… spectacular. Orange flames cloak the land, for as far as the eye can see in every direction, from the hill we stand on to the jagged mountains in the distance, every metre of charred black earth covered by the inferno save for the dead straight path that runs from here to the cave and on, down the hill in front of us.
My eye follows its route, and a little beyond the bottom of the hill, through the fire I can make out…
“A city?” Hayley asks, squinting against the light of the flames.
“I think so,” I reply. “Yes, yes it must be.” The more I look, the more I find I can see. The city is huge, taking up a vast proportion of the visible land before us, though it’s hard to make out through the perpetual blaze. The buildings are tall, modern-looking, like skyscrapers, though every one of them is broken and crumbled, and wrapped in the omnipresent fire. Between the great towers lie myriad smaller, perhaps residential buildings, lining streets that criss-cross the city in a regular, efficient grid. It reminds me of New York, though I never managed to go before I left our world.
Our path cuts right through the middle of the city, disappearing into the buildings, and though I can’t follow its precise route I can see it does not continue beyond the city itself.
“I guess that’s where we’re supposed to go,” Hayley says.
“Must be,” I agree. I offer her my arm in a mock-gentlemanly fashion. “Shall we?”
She snorts, and elbows me aside. I shrug, and we start the descent together.
Our water supplies are uncomfortably low by the time we reach the city border. Both our bottles are down to less than a quarter-full, and we’re almost gasping with thirst, not to mention shattered from the heat and the exertion. I pray without much hope that there might be water somewhere in the city.
Tall buildings burn on either side of the road as we follow it into the city, only a few degrees away from being parallel to our path. As such, the road slowly veers to the right of the corridor in the flames, so we move further and further left, until most of the passable route is now buildings with no obvious doors, with Hayley and I confined to the raised pavement between their walls and the flames to our right.
We reach a T-junction, and the right turn is blocked completely by fire, so our only choice is to turn left. We do so, along the width of the path, and just before we reach the crackling flames on the other side, we reach a tunnel leading into and under the buildings on our right.
“I suppose it must be that way,” I say, and Hayley shrugs.
We take another drink before we enter it, and after a sip I find there’s merely a trickle left in the bottom. One more stop, and I’m out. Hayley’s is the same.
With nothing else for it, we shoulder our packs and walk on into the tunnel. To start with, it’s lit by the residual light from the flames outside, but soon it descends into pitch darkness, and we carry on by feel, arms stretched out in front of us in case we walk into something.
“I don’t like this one bit.” That doesn’t quite sum up my serious reservations about marching headlong into pitch darkness on a dying world.
The moment she says that, there’s a colossal bang and a sudden, pungent smell of rotten eggs, followed swiftly by a blindingly bright light bursting into life above our heads, followed by another, and another, and another, illuminating the way ahead. I squeal with shock, a high-pitched girlish sound I’m immediately embarrassed by – annoyingly, Hayley merely jumps, and makes no such noise. It takes a moment for our eyes to re-adjust to the glare, and we follow the lights to a featureless metal door at the end of the corridor, hanging half off its hinges.
“Should we go in?” Hayley asks hesitantly.
“What could possibly go wrong?” I declare with a grin, and she follows me through the door.
The corridor opens up into a vast, cavernous room, devastated by whatever cataclysm set this word aflame. Its floor is made of steel that must once have been shiny and polished, but now is caked with dust. Above, dozens of tiers rise as high as I can see, ringing a central hollow that goes all the way up to the distant ceiling, far, far above.
In the middle of the hollow is a round console that reminds me an awful lot of the TARDIS from Doctor Who, with a central column that goes all the way up. On each level, wires branch off from the column to smaller, individual computer terminals on desks, arranged in a circular fashion. Most of these are overturned, the monitors shattered, the wreckage covered with the omnipresent dust. Although the room is far larger in diameter than the width of the flaming path that led us from the cave, no fires burn in here.
“I think we’ve arrived,” I observe. Although it’s cooler in this building, thinking of the fires reminds me how desperately thirsty I am. There’s nothing for it – I have to finish the bottle, and Hayley does the same.
We approach the nearest terminal to us that doesn’t seem too damaged. The computer is a box made of black, glossy metal, with neither a keyboard nor mouse, but a row of small green and red lights, flickering softly. I reach out a hand to it.
“Rah’cal mok pal’gui” a synthesised voice announces, in a language I know nothing of. We both leap backwards.
“What was that?” Hayley breaths.
I stare at the sleek, sophisticated-looking box, so unlike any kind of technology around when I left home.
“I think…” I murmur softly. “It’s alien.”
We grin at each other stupidly.
“We’ve made First Contact,” she giggles.
Us. Two teenagers from London and Surrey, with no qualifications to speak of and certainly no experience at all with… whatever this was.
We burst into hysterical laughter, collapsing against the table and each other. A year of travelling entirely alone, then one day another human, and the next – aliens. What? Just… what?
“Cal’rathi moliabak. Passerip…” the computerised voice continues.
“What do you think it’s saying?” Hayley asks as I wipe my eyes. It responds before I can.
“Language identified. Earth English, layer AQ-one-four-five-zero-eight. Dialect: circa two thousand CE. Welcome, error zero-five-one.”
“This is so Doctor Who,” Hayley whispers, echoing my earlier thoughts.
“What information do you require,” it states in a flat monotone, and I realise the voice synthesiser has not been programmed to raise its pitch as one normally would with a question.
“What is this place?” I ask.
“Well that’s helpful,” Hayley remarks.
“What happened to this world?” I try.
Hayley pushes me to one side to address the computer herself.
“Where can we get a drink?”
There’s a pause.
I pound the table in frustration. “This must be damaged,” I say. We try another two terminals that look more or less operable, but they all say the same thing.
“What information is available?” I ask the third terminal.
“Two recorded messages.”
“Let’s hear them then.”
There’s another pause.
“Translate to user language. Confirm or deny.”
I glance at Hayley. “Confirm,” she says.
“Commence message one. I can hear them outside,” the computer says in its monotone, and a chill runs down my spine. “The door holds them back, but will not for long. Council declares colony beyond saving. They have proposed a vote to trigger Scorch. We cannot let them have our home. Better to let it burn. I am starting a total system purge. All we have learned, all our discoveries, our culture, our art – I am wiping it all. They cannot know any more about us, or they may use it against the other colonies. I will not allow it. If anyone can hear this, if anyone has come here looking for answers, I cannot help you. End of message one.”
Hayley quietly takes my hand. Her face has gone pale. I can feel mine has too.
“Commence message two. Scorch has begun. The fires are burning all across the city, all across the world. I have a plan, though. I am going to take as many of you down with me as I can. You hear that, you scum. I know you are listening. I expect you saw my force corridor and thought you would follow it. I hope you rejoiced when you arrived at my library. You thought the information here would help you, but I have purged it all. You have come instead to your deaths.”
Hayley clutches my hand tighter, and panic rises in my throat. Nothing has changed in the room, but those words cannot be a good sign.
“The force corridor is set to shut down when this message is played. There is no way out.”
Hayley lets go of my hand and runs across the room to the half-closed door. I follow as fast as I can. No, no, no…
There’s an explosion, the door flies off its mount to skid across the floor, and in spill the flames. That’s not a metaphor. They genuinely spill, like liquid, spreading out from the door in an ever-expanding pool, and Hayley and I run.
“Nothing can withstand Scorch,” the recording continues. “You can run, but you will die. You hear me, you monsters, you things of evil darkness. You will burn along with my world. You will die in agony, and my retribution for what you have done to my people will be complete.”
There’s a spiral staircase on the opposite side of the room and we make straight for it, the flames pursuing with terrifying speed, thick black smoke billowing through the air towards us. We start up the steps, as fast as we can, the staircase running all the way up to the distant ceiling. I try not to think about what we’ll do when we reach the top.
We’ve managed a tier when we look down to see the flames have already entered the stairwell. They’re actually climbing the stairs after us, rising up over each step like a living creature, hungry to consume us.
“That’s not possible!” I yell as we run.
“None of this is possible!” Hayley shouts back.
Despite the adrenaline, our exhaustion and dehydration are already slowing us down. My legs are screaming in pain with each step, but I push on through, ignoring the agony through sheer determination to survive. Hayley is managing to keep up, but she has shorter legs than me, and she’s definitely struggling.
The smoke from the flames reaches us, wrapping itself around our bodies, and it’s noxious, foul, making us both retch. With a burst of speed, I leap ahead out of its grasp, snatching one last lungful of air, before it and Hayley rise up to meet me.
Her face is contorted, and she’s coughing, hacking, doubling over, hands on her knees. She’s out of air.
Her eyes glaze over, and I see her legs begin to give way. I stop running and reach out to catch her, just as she collapses into my arms. I crouch there with her on the stairs, my eyes stinging from the smoke, my mouth clamped shut, savouring the oxygen from that last breath. But the flames are rising below. They’ve accelerated, climbing faster than us now. Already they’ve consumed the first three floors of the library, and are only a few tiers below us. Maybe this is a test, I wonder, my mind whirling. To prove myself to the voice in the cave. Maybe I have to leave her, to show I’m strong enough for whatever it has planned for me. Besides, I’ve only known her a couple of days, she’s practically a stranger - what would it even matter if I left her?
No. To hell with the voice and its tests. I’ve been alone for far too long.
With no other options, I heft Hayley into my arms, and plough onwards, half running, half staggering, carrying her before me as the smoke turns the world black.
Please, I beg in my mind. We need to move on. Move us on, now. Please!
The flames climb higher, clearing the last few levels, licking at my heels. I can’t climb any further, so I push open a door to my left and stumble out onto the tier I’ve reached, clutching Hayley tightly to my chest. The flames pour through behind me, and I run, passing rows and rows of broken computer terminals, following the ring around the edge of the room. The smoke is just as thick here, but I can’t hold on any longer, so I crouch a little and take another shuddering breath. The toxic air fills my lungs, offering no respite, but only fierce, burning pain. The world around me darkens. Suddenly I’m falling, I’m on my knees, but I just manage to lay Hayley gently on the ground in front of me. I turn my head, and the flames are behind me, almost on me.
And then I feel it. The call. It settles in my mind and I give into it without hesitation. We move on, and I close my eyes.