“Pochards”, was the first word spoken today. Emil looked up cautiously, keeping the corner of his eye on the road. Several dots on the dark-blue morning sky, no clouds. He was never quite sure whether dad could really recognize particular species of birds at this distance.
“Are they flying to the village?", he asked dad.
“Yes, they are,” said Tapio. “We'll meet them when we get back.”
Their steel bicycles did a good job dampening the imperfections of the old concrete service road running hundreds of kilometers through the dead forest. Thick tree trunks in all directions, unnaturally straight like lampposts, echoing the similarly unnatural straightness of the road. The sun was up for hours, slowly crawling away from its origin in the north-east. This time of year it's going to be bright for another twenty six hours, which should be enough for them to get to the old port ruins. The trip was not very important, casual even, which is why Tapio decided to take his teenage son along. With just 450 kilometers one way, the plan was to bike roughly three hundred on the first day, camp the “night”, get to the port, collect the inessential electronics scavenged by scouts months earlier, then bike back to the same camp before sunset, sleep and, finally, get back to the village.
They were silent for few more hours, trying their best to keep a steady pace. Tapio knew this area very well, although, there wasn't much to know. Terraformed in the cheapest possible way, the planet was mostly flattened, covered with service roads and genetically enlarged trees optimized for rapid oxygen production. This northern part reminded him of the Old Country from movies, yet he could not get rid of this intrusive thought that some new age obsessive-compulsive god straightened up all angles and fixed all organic imperfections, thus making the final strike in the soul of the old pagan deities.
In all of two decades he's been taking this service road to the old port, he never met another traveller. He'd be surprised to do so, as most of the settlers have left a long time ago, only the desperate, or hard-working, or insane stayed on this failed project of a world. Tapio's ancestors settled on a barren land, too, and managed to thrive, but that was a simpler world. No barren lands were toxic then, no bad place was as bad as this. With batteries keeping good charge in both their bicycles, Tapio wasn't worried too much about air filtration and temperatures in their suits, but still had occasional anxiety about the future.
Their village was a good place, at least. Isolated from the outside with three levels of increasingly livable layers, it was home to a dozen families, all good, quiet, hard-working people. Scouts did a good job finding electronics, batteries, even canned food sometimes, and Tapio did his best on these runs to get them back home. A trip for inessentials was his favorite kind of trip. It's the closest he could get to “outdoors relaxation”, an alien concept. It also helped his anxiety and hopelessness, or at least he believed it did.
When the port was in operation, you could hear it from far away. But now it stood silently in a bald concrete patch of land surrounded by equally silent trees. None of the towers had any depth left in them, only skeleton-like inner shards and tubes visible, leaving sharp, strange shadows with the help of the bright sun on a cloudless sky.
Packages left by scouts were marked with bright orange flags. Tapio took a thin pack with lightweight electronics from the top and opened it. Inside were fuses, extension cords, LED strips and g-drive-screens, which allowed for long-term ghost-recording storage and playback. Tapio took one out, connected to his eyepiece and pressed play. The screen filled with the green lawns of village land. Emil came into the frame, all busy getting ready for the trip.
“Look,” said Tapio and turned the screen towards his son. Emil smiled.
“Have you been recording me this whole time?”
“Yes. Need data to test these drives. And it's nice, too, right? Our first trip together.”
“Yeah. We can show mom.”
The father was proud of his kid whose steady pace would've impressed a port officer. Emil put three marked boxes into a little trailer, then paused for a moment to investigate a long tube from one of the other boxes, then proceeded to load the rest. Tapio was standing nearby and watching silently.
“Yeah, I saw them on the horizon,” said Emil. Tapio brushed off his haze and said “More birds” to himself quietly. The sun was now directly on top and it wasn't a good idea to look up. Sharp tiny shadows and almost sterile air made the scene look like a video game, a simulation of too much detail, too realistic to be real. It was time to leave.
“Dad, I can't breathe, something is wrong”, said Emil. His battery failed silently, without any warning. Tapio knew this would happen, but didn't want to think about, as if hoping the inevitable would somehow change its mind. He was calm, yet his hands and back were tight and sweaty. He turned off his headset and waited roughly four minutes while his son was panicking in total silence.
Soon, when he turned the radio back on, both regained their calmness and were biking again. Turns out, both their batteries died at the same time, probably due to overexposure to some of the port's legacy security systems. Normally, travelers take precautions, even though such problems are rare. Too excited, if that term can be applied to Tapio's nordic cool, he forgot to discharge the capacitors. Probably. He wasn't sure. It didn't matter anyway.
It wasn't too bad though. The energy generated from their pedaling was just barely enough to keep life support systems running, as long as they booth keep their speed above 18 kilometers per hour. With about a hundred kilometers left until their campsite, they just need to keep going without stopping. Their tent is still there, so, perhaps, they could rest in turns, while one person keeps pedaling in place and the other resting in the tent. They both need rest, because there's not much choice: they have to bike all the way to the village without stopping now. No real night camping, no food.
The sight of the camping ground brought some reassurance to both travelers. Both knew it doesn't make sense. Emil disconnected his suit from the bike and headed into the tent. Technically, cached energy would last up to five minutes. Tapio stopped near the tent, connected his bike to the tent's in-port via a splitter, laid on the ground as comfortable as he could and started pedaling in the air.
“Good?” he asked?
“Yes, going up, steady,” replied Emil a whole minute later. Tapio thought he's getting sloppy with this. But then, maybe it's for the best.
They left the campsite in the last hour of sunlight. Night was creeping in.
Completely exhausted, running on low oxygen air for miles, Emil fell down with his bicycle into a pile of black soil, and his body disappeared. Father turned the radio off again, taking in the numbing silence. He couldn't listen to the horrifying sounds of his son asphyxiating. These last minutes don't matter, however “right” such vivid mental self-mutilation may have seemed to him earlier.
Then Tapio turned his life support back on. The screens showed almost full charge and normal operation. There is no rush now. He sat down near the pile, looking into the flat slightly light horizon. Dry lake, this god damn place. Fucking useless planet… He gently touched an old wooden cross on top of the pile so that it stands straight up again, then put a tiny portable light nearby. These lights flicker pleasantly when you fiddle with the charging port, just like an old-world candle. A blurred shadow of the cross danced violently on the surface of the pile. “End of playback. 34 hours 17 minutes elapsed. Repeat?” His eyepiece started blinking with a mechanical rhythm, in contrast with almost humane flickering “candles”. Tapio's barely vocal “no” has stopped the ghost-recording projection and left him absolutely alone.
Suvi didn't come to meet her husband when he entered the house. She just kept soldering the keyboard in the main room, silent. Minutes later, when he changed and sat down near the fireplace, she asked “Everything alright?". He didn't answer, but she knew it was alright. It was the same last year, and the year before. They usually just sat in silence like that for an hour or so, then had dinner and the next day it was just normal again. But this time Tapio broke the silence: “I'm a bad father.”
She stopped and said loudly “Stop it now. Nobody thinks that. No gods punish you. You can dwell and slowly die inside. Or you can be a good father.”
“Not to Emil,” he said.
A quiet cry of a baby came from the backroom. “She is up. We need a proper crib now.”
“I know. Will make one. Got a nice thin trunk from nearby. It's in the workshop.”
“Good” she said.
“Good” he echoed.
The fireplace now seemed misplaced as morning sun projected bright rays onto the walls with relentless strength.