A fresh post-apocalyptic anthology: the end of the world seen through the salvage and ruins. Featuring Emily St John Mandel, Carmen Maria Machado and more.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAVE FROM THE FIRE?
In the moments when it all comes crashing down, what will we value the most, and how will we save it? Digging through the layers of ruined cities beneath your feet, living in the bombed-out husk of a city, hiding from the monsters on the other side of the wall, can we turn the cataclysm into an opportunity?
Featuring new and exclusive stories, as well as classics of the genre, Grassmann takes us through the fall and beyond, to the things that are created after. Calling on the finest traditions of post-apocalyptic fiction, this anthology asks us what makes us human, and who we will be when we emerge out of the ruins?
Featuring work from China Miéville, Emily St John Mandel, Clive Barker, Carmen Maria Machado, Charlie Jane Anders, Samuel R. Delaney, Ramsey Campbell, Lavie Tidhar, Kaaron Warrern, Anna Tambour, Nina Allan, Jeffrey Thomas, Paul Di Filippo, Ron Drummond, Nikhil Singh, John Skipp, Autumn Christian, Chris Kelso, Rumi Kaneko, Nick Mamatas and D.R.G. Sugawara.
Release date: September 7, 2021
Publisher: Titan Books
Print pages: 384
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Out of the Ruins
Emily St. John Mandel
EVERY winter around January the Green Caravanserais began to make an appearance around the Ghost Coast between Taba and Nuweiba. They were slow moving, patient and cautious—as well they should be, Saleh thought. For the paths they traversed were hard and the Ghost Coast itself could be deadly.
Saleh crouched on top of the unfinished castellated tower of what had once been, or could have been, a grand hotel. He could look out for miles. The Red Sea sparkled to the east, with the Saudi mountains rising behind on the shores on the other side of the gulf. The outlines of empty swimming pools dotted the landscape of heavily built, abandoned buildings each grander than the rest—
Bavarian Romanesque castles jostled against basilicas built in faux-Gaudí style, which in turn nestled against miniature Egyptian pyramids. Moorish arches vied with Doric columns next to a vintage American diner and an extensive garden, maintained by rusty, salvaged robots, was set up like a budget Alhambra.
Here and there Saleh could see craters of the ancient wars, where nothing lived and no one had settled, and fresh holes which a giant sandworm—the Vermes Arenae Sinaitici Gigantes were another relic of the war—might have dug. This strip of endless hospitality architecture ran all the way from the ancient border with what was now the entwined dual polity of the digitally federated Judea-Palestina Union to Sharm El-Sheikh, near the tip of the peninsula.
Beyond it lay the desert, eternal and hostile to humans as it always was.
It was from the desert that the Green Caravanserai came. Saleh, eyes bright, watched the distant, slow procession. The goats came first, a brown and white herd treading with an easy gait. Robed figures moved between them. Then, behind them, came the elephants.
There were several elephant families in the herd. Saleh watched enraptured, for he had always loved elephants. These were sand-coloured from the long march, and they moved with a kind of majestic unhurriedness, unencumbered by humans, seemingly indifferent to the elements. They were desert elephants, and in a lifetime could make the slow back-and-forth crossing many times. Moving between them were more humans, robed and with traditional keffiyehs covering their heads. Small robots and drones crawled and hovered and slithered in between.
And now Saleh could see solar gliders rising overhead on the hot winds.
Behind the elephants came the first of the caravanserai proper, though in the idiom of the travellers it was still called by its old name of a khan. Saleh watched as the building slinkied itself across the sands. The old caravanserais or khans were rest stops for the merchant trains along the silk and perfume roads. Now the Green Caravanserai brought their own buildings with them, semi-sentient machines that could build and rebuild themselves with ease and adapt to their surroundings, drawing energy from wind and sun.
Camels came behind the khan and hordes of children, horses, wagons pulled by snail-like robots until the whole thing resembled less a caravan than a carnival.
Saleh always looked forward to the caravanserais’ arrival each year, though until now he had never gone near one, for his father was always the one to represent the tribe at the trade meeting, and Saleh was not allowed to come.
But not this time, he thought. This time he had his own thing to trade, paid for in blood and despair.
His father was gone.
No. This time he, Saleh, would go. This time he would meet the elephants.
He watched as the Green Caravanserai reached just beyond the old coastal road that bisected the Ghost Coast from the desert. There they stopped, in successive waves. The khans reassembled and formed into simple, solid shapes that looked a little like round beehives. The small robots formed a fence and the people of the caravanserai laid down solar sheeting and set up atmospheric water generators. The kids played with the elephants. The goats chewed on the bark of trees.
Saleh abandoned the castellated tower of the old hotel. He slid down stairwells and in and out of windows. It was not protocol to go alone. The Abu-Ala foraged the Ghost Coast for old machines and they had long ago made arrangements with the caravaners, so Salah would be going against both tribe wishes and simple decorum.
He paused in the entrance of the old hotel. The sun beat down. The Ghost Coast—this endless strip of vintage neo-kitsch architecture suspended in time and gently falling apart—spread away from him.
He stared at the road then, almost unwillingly it felt to him, he began to march towards the Green Caravanserai.
* * *
Elias scratched hair out of his eyes and looked with curiosity at the boy striding nervously across the road. The boy had no way of knowing this, but right then he had the attention of several heavily armed drones, a detachment of caravaner rangers and of old Umm Kulthum, the matriarch of the elephant herd herself, and if he set one foot wrong or drew any kind of weapon or if he just sneezed, really, he’d turn into hot desert dust long before his brain could even process the idea.
Which would be a shame, really, Elias thought, because the boy seemed nice, if rather nervous.
This really wasn’t protocol.
The thing about the Sinai was that, beyond the stretch of the Ghost Coast, and after centuries of sporadic warfare, nothing in the desert was particularly safe. It was littered with old mines, traps, unexploded ordnances, mutated bio-weapons and sentient machines that no one even remembered designing in the first place. The only people to cross it were the caravaners, who went in search of old military tech that had resale value, and to get through it time and time again they had become proficient in the art of not dying.
They were not specialists in the tech: it was people like the Abu-Ala tribe of the Al-Tirabin, for example—who foraged the Ghost Coast—that collected the stuff. The caravaners just haggled for it, then carried it back across the mountains and wadis and the desert, ranging from Cairo in the west to the glittering sprawl—Al-Imtidad—of Neom in the east and sometimes even to Djibouti in the south.
Elias watched as the boy crossed the road. Elias was mounted on top of the now-stationary khan, and he’d been observing the boy for quite a while now, ever since his heat signature was detected on top of a tower in the dense network of abandoned buildings that made up the coast.
Long ago, the coast was a busy hive of activity as tourists came from all over the world, from Israel and Russia and the European mass and that big island just off Europe the name of which Elias could never remember, but was an important polity for a short time back in the sometime or other. But then the tourists stopped coming, the ever more lavish hotel and resort buildings were never completed, and then the wars came, and with them the Leviathans that still haunted the depths of the Red Sea, and the Rocs that snatched the unwary and carried them to nests high up in the mountains and laid their larval eggs in them, and the sandworms—and whose stupid idea was that one? —that still bred and grew enormous in the sands.
There was other movement in the area—one sandworm lay dormant two clicks away and deep underground, and a group of non-sentient but mobile unexploded ordnances was gathered in what looked like a Roman villa four clicks back towards Taba, but surprisingly there were no humans and no Abu-Ala as one would usually expect to find.
None, that is, but for the boy.
Elias shrugged, put the goggles back on so he could continue monitoring the immediate area, jumped out of the khan’s top deck and slid smoothly down one of the now-tentacular bases.
The boy crossed the road and came to the perimeter of the caravanserai and stopped.
Elias came and met him.
They looked at each other curiously.
“Hello?” the boy said, uncertainly.
“Yes?” Elias said. He knew it was unhelpful. But there were protocols in place. And this wasn’t it.
“I am Saleh,” the boy said.
“Yes,” Elias said, dubiously.
They stared at each other.
* * *
Saleh wasn’t going to let them intimidate him. Even though he was intimidated. Badly. Two tiny crawling robots came over the line and examined him with extended feelers.
The other boy said, “Try not to move.”
Saleh stood very still. He took a deep breath. He said, “My name is Saleh Mohammed Ishak Abu-Ala Al-Tirabin.”
At this the other boy looked more interested. “You are an Abu-Ala?”
“You are not the designated contact,” the boy said.
“So why are you here?”
Saleh was sweating, though the air was chilly. He said, “I have something.”
“Something to trade.”
The boy looked interested again. “Is it valuable?” he said.
“I think so.”
The boy seemed to consider. “Still,” he said. “We deal with the tribe, not with individual scavengers. It makes everything easier. Safe.”
Saleh said, “There is only me.”
“There is only me,” he said quietly.
And then he started to cry.
* * *
Saleh sat miserably on the mat while Elias brewed sage tea. Elias had had to bring him in, hadn’t he. The boy was no longer deemed a threat. Saleh accepted the tea gratefully. Elias brought out pistachios and hard biscuits. He set them on a plate and sat cross-legged across from Saleh.
“What happened to them?” he said. He tried to speak gently.
“We were excavating in Dahab,” he said. “It used to be a robotnik nest during the second, no, maybe the third war. You must have seen the satellite pictures of Dahab, right? It had a terrorartist attack in the fourth war and the whole place is suspended in a sort of still-ongoing explosion, but if you wear a null suit you can navigate through the temporality maze—anyway. We were digging. Dahab’s full of valuable old stuff, it’s just hard to get. Then, something… broke loose.” He blinked. “I don’t know what. A ghost.”
“A ghost?” Elias said.
Saleh shrugged again, helplessly. “One of the old Israeli robotniks, I think. It was still alive somehow, inside the explosion. Most power sources don’t work inside the terrorartist installation so we bring in portable fusion generators when we go in. I think my dad brushed too close to the old robotnik and somehow it drew power from the generator and—and it came alive. They were cyborgs, with biological brains but mostly machine otherwise. I don’t even know if it was alive in a real sense, only responding to what it saw as battle. So it came loose and it killed my father and the rest of… It killed everyone.”
“I am sorry,” Elias said. He looked at the boy in front of him. Two years back they had lost Manmour, the elephant, to tiny mechanical spider things that had swarmed out of one of the wadis. Only the skeleton remained and then the machines vanished again, and what they did with Manmour’s skin and flesh and blood nobody knew. The elephants grieved and the whole caravanserai grieved with them.
“Drink your tea,” Elias said compassionately.
* * *
Saleh closed his eyes. The teacup felt warm between his hands.
“Everyone else was away,” he said quietly. He had to get the words out. Had to tell Elias what happened. In a way it was a relief.
“Most of the tribe’s down in Sharm or St. Catherine’s. But I got it, you see.” He opened his eyes and stared at the other boy, this Elias, with his strange goggles and short-cropped hair and curious, interested gaze.
“You got it? What?” the boy said.
“The thing we were looking for.” Excitement quickened in him then. “My grandfather Ishak and my father, Mohammed, they kept looking. Even though it was dangerous. Even though it was hard. Every year the terrorartist bubble moves outwards just a little. It is still alive, the explosion still happening. You know much about terrorart?”
“A little. Rohini started it, didn’t they? The Jakarta Event.”
“Time-dilation bombs,” Saleh said. “Yes, Rohini. There were others. Mad Rucker who seeded the Boppers on Titan. Sandoval, who made the installation called Earthrise out of stolen minds on the moon. There were never many, thankfully. And they were mass murderers, every one. But the art, I know people are interested in it.”
“There are collectors,” Elias said. “Museums, too. What did you find?”
“This,” Saleh said, simply. He opened his bag and took out a small metal ball. It felt so light. “It’s the time-dilation bomb.”
Silent alarms must have gone off somewhere, because a moment later he had caravaners and drones both surround him. He never even heard them coming.
Elias let out a slow exhalation of breath.
“And how did we miss that?” he said.
“It’s empty,” Saleh said. “The explosion, Dahab, everything? It’s still going on. My father, my uncle, they’re still inside it. An endless death, still happening. The robotnik pulled them into the field. Only I got out.”
He didn’t dare move. The weapons were on him. Elias said, “May I see it?”
Saleh gave it to the other boy.
* * *
Numbers danced behind Elias’s goggles. He nodded and the weapons around Saleh relaxed, if only a little.
Elias said, “It’s genuine. That’s a real find.”
Defiance in the other boy’s eyes. “I told you.”
“You speak for your tribe?” Elias said.
“I speak for myself.”
“And the Abu-Ala? Where do the rest of your people stand on this?” Elias said.
Saleh shook his head. Carefully. “This is mine,” he said. “It is all that is left. The others will appoint a new speaker in time.”
“What do you want for this?”
“I want enough,” Saleh said. He seemed desperate. “It’s priceless, an original terrorartist artefact.”
“That it is.” Elias turned it over in his hands. It felt so light. He said, “What do you need the money for?”
Saleh said, “There is nothing for me here. I want to go away. Far away. I thought… I could travel up the ’stalk to Gateway, get a ship out.”
“Mars? The moon?”
“Titan. I always wanted to see Titan.”
Elias felt sorry for him. “You can’t run away,” he said, as gently as he could. “Even in space, you’d still just be yourself. And lonelier than you could ever imagine.”
“Maybe. But I have to get out.”
“I’m sorry,” Elias said. And he really was. But this was business.
He said, “It’s rare. It’s valuable. There’s no question about it. But it’s just an empty bomb husk. Even with provenance. You’d have to find the right collector, and even then… it won’t get you to Mars. It would barely get you a one-way ticket on the ’stalk. We would buy it off you, of course. But we are wholesalers, not collectors. I can’t offer you what you want and, even if you could somehow sell it at full price somewhere else, it won’t be as much as you’d hope.”
He saw the light die in Saleh’s eyes. Saw it, and felt terrible.
“My father, my uncle, my cousins, everyone…”
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