North of Trapper Creek, beyond the rolling hills crowned in white, Rusty gathers the last of the kindling before nightfall. He swings the axe in the arc of a crescent moon, splitting the maple log with a dull thud. The two halves fall to either side of the stump and sink into the fresh snow. Rusty wipes the frost from his beard, leaving a moist streak on his leather glove. He slings the axe over his shoulder and tucks the logs under his arm. His woolly jacket shields him from the unforgiving wind.
Before heading back to the cabin, he glances at the darkening horizon. It looms beyond the proud oaks and spiralling mountaintops, stabbing the clouds with daggers of icy blue. A brush paints the sky with plumes of blood red and rusted gold. The clouds shift in the shapes of baby lambs and snarling wolves. Rusty worries it’s the closest he’ll get to real animals, at least in this world. He chooses not to think about it, and thinks instead about what he does have: the logs under his arm and their promised warmth, a cabin to sleep in and dream of tomorrow. It was all his—forever. He turns, his back to the sun, and makes for the cabin.
An unnatural chill filled the cabin. Rusty dropped to one knee, letting the logs fall. He grunted as he tossed the kindling into the dank fireplace. The ghosts of yesterday’s fire murmured in the ashes. He reached into his jacket and produced a box of matches. It was branded by a woman’s face; one eye winking, the other a blaze of fiery red, just like her hair. He took a match and struck it against the box’s red edge, producing a shivering flame. Rusty watched it eat through the wood and crawl towards his finger. It left behind a trail of black death.
He threw the flame into the fireplace. A slither of smoke rose through the kindling, before a tiny flame, like the eye of a dragon, rose from beneath. Almost instantly, the cabin felt warm—alive. The fire cast a coppery hue over the interior. It was little more than a bedroom and a living area, but it was all he needed. There was a teak armchair, a stove for his tea, a cabinet for his biscuits, a bookcase for his novels, and a counter for his record player. He removed his jacket and hung it on a nail in the wall, before opening the cabinet and reaching into a jar of ginger biscuits. They tasted real.
On the record player he played his favourite melody, The Sounds of Storms: Fifth Edition (no thunder). He peered out the window into the cloudy night, hoping for rain, knowing it would never come. The gods who forged this place could erect trees from the dirt and pluck the very sun from the sky, but, for reasons unknown, they could never make it rain. The thought saddened him; he turned up the volume. Rusty passed by the bookshelf, his fingers running across the leather spines. He found his favourite story, Eden’s Quarry, by P.K. Thompson, his favourite Old West author. Rusty settled into the chair, book in hand, and started reading. Still, his eyes wandered, the light of the fire painting the hand-made furniture gold. He knew they weren’t really hand-made. None of it was. It was all a lie.
He tried reading, losing himself in Thompson’s quarry, but he couldn’t. His eyes wandered back to the window, and he couldn’t help but dream of something else. Something more.
It was half past four, and Martin Fletcher counted down the minutes until five. He sat in a squeaky little chair behind a desk made of cheap oak. His office contained a filing cabinet, a faulty air conditioner and an artificial fern which brought some colour to the room. Management made an initiative to have at least two ferns in every office by the end of April, following a circulating memo which claimed artificial plants increase productivity by up to 19 per cent. It was October, and half the offices were still waiting on their first fern.
Martin clacked away on his little keyboard. Half the keys were faded and it sounded like he was bashing rocks together when he typed. Martin worked for a company that worked for a paper company. His job was routine. He acted as the conduit between paper manufacturers and distributors. He knew everything there was to know about paper. He knew the different classifications of paper, the range of quality, the profit margins, and how much waste was produced.
He tapped his fingers against his desk, yearning for the moment he could go home to the Artemis, that ethereal gateway to the cabin. Most of his pay went to maintaining and updating the costly Artemis device. That cold hunk of plastic and metal was the key to escaping this bitter world. He watched the time on his monitor near five. His desktop wallpaper depicted a cowboy with an arrogant smirk brandishing a magnum, a crow perched on his shoulder. It was Carson “Rusty” Adams. He was the hero of the Thompson novels. Martin didn’t really want to be a cowboy—he just wanted to be more than a man of paper.
The air freezes inside Rusty’s nostrils. It’s an earthy, metallic smell. Rusty sits by the gushing waters of Trapper Creek. The river’s melody soothes him. There’s a graceful simplicity to it; an eternal order stretching to infinity. No matter what wars are fought, what bombs are dropped, what lives are ended, the water will run over these rocks forever.
An owl gracefully swoops over the maples, resting on a log beside Rusty. A gift from the gods. Shimmering eyes of melted gold peer through slick feathers of iron grey. It cranes its neck and considers Rusty—judges him. The owl reminds him of the villains in those silly little books. He calls her Bandit. It’s sometime between morning and afternoon; the last embers of sunrise fading into the everlasting sky. Bandit hoots and flaps her wings, embarking on a brilliant flight. Rusty knows she isn’t real, that her feathers are just a symphony of ones and zeros crafted by the gods, but he doesn’t care. Rusty watches in awe as Bandit soars through the pale sky, and wonders if someday he too might fly. He doesn’t really want to—he much prefers the view from down here.
Martin wasn’t sure what he was looking at, but the sign said “art”, so he took their word for it.
“What do you think?” asked Ella.
She worked for the company too, in human resources. They’d met at the annual Christmas party and started chatting over flat wine and cheese that tasted like plastic. Martin didn’t want to ask her on a date, but he felt obliged to after their lengthy interaction. They talked of weather patterns, hypersonic trains, the war in Europe, paper, and the latest Artemis update—this time with interactive NPCs! She seemed more interested in discussing paper. He wondered if she would join him in a future update. He didn’t really know if he wanted her to.
“I’m not sure,” said Martin.
They’d come to the Melbourne Museum for an exhibition about post-post-idealistic art. He’d never heard the phrase before. Ella told him it was a movement started by so-and-so to rebel against the conventions of this-and-that. She seemed passionate about it. Martin fiddled with his fingers, buried deep in his puffer jacket; he wore it to cover his spindly, awkward frame. Some people were scratching their heads at the artwork; others nodded in contemplation. Martin wasn’t sure if they were faking it; he wished he was just a bit smarter.
The artwork they considered was a black, volumetric 3D monitor. It spanned an entire wall, reaching dozens of meters to the ceiling and stretching out of view. No matter how far he stepped back, he couldn’t see the whole thing at once. Every few moments, a swirl of colour constructed of thousands of tiny holographic cubes would emerge and then dissipate. Sometimes they would be accompanied by the soothing melody of a harp; other times the shrill wail of a violin. Ella closed her eyes and swore she could hear voices in the echoes; Martin didn’t believe her. It was all noise to him. The many plaques in front of the screen read the words: So it Goes.
“Does it speak to you?” asked Ella.
Martin glanced back at the screen, trying to piece together some kind of rhythm or logic to the madness. He thought he saw a crimson swirl turn from a maple leaf to a star before igniting in a violet blaze to the tune of Beethoven. None of it made any sense. He glanced nervously at his watch.
“I think I’d feel something...” said Martin, wishing he was anywhere else. “...If only I knew where to look.”
Rusty shifted in his leather chair. The fire burned bright and warmed the cabin; the gold phonograph playing Soothing Sounds by the Bay: Second Edition (no seagulls). There were six rooms now, each bigger than the last. Byron, his husky, snoozed idly by the foot of the chair. Rusty was whittling. He’d grown tired of the Thompson novels. He knew every sentence, every word, every misplaced comma. He’d tried substituting the cabin for the Old West, but he didn’t like it. It was too hot, and it smelled terrible.
He’d whittled himself a chess set, a clock, some knives, and an owl. Bandit had flown away when Byron arrived. The gods giveth and the gods taketh away. He missed Bandit, and the thought distracted him. He was trying to replicate the star he saw on that screen in the museum, the one that confused him. He thought he might understand if he recreated it, that his hands and fingers might unearth something his eyes couldn’t. He’d already cast a dozen failures into the fire, and he worried this one would soon join the others. Byron snorted; he must have been having a bad dream. The sound startled Rusty, and he cut his finger. A drop of red ran down his arm and splattered against the floor.
“Look what you did!” shouted Rusty, kicking Byron’s bed. The dog awoke with a fright, before drifting back to sleep. Rusty couldn’t work with Byron’s snoring, with the crackle of the fire, with the artificial soundtrack mocking him. But he knew if he abandoned Byron or burned the record player, he’d be alone with that terrible, eternal silence. What he needed was something else. Something more. He just wished it would rain.