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Dreams, oh yes dreams. I crouch in the tunnel, eyes closing on the sickly branches reaching across the tracks, blocking it all from my mind with the land of the yellow sun.
But when my lids spring open to the chip-chip of robot feet on the bridge above, it’s just another dawn coated in haze, raw buds opening like sticky tarred lungs struggling to breathe.
The footsteps fade into silence. And where the dark rails converge, where I so much want my brother to be, is a yellow speck, fragile against the greys and blacks.
It flies towards me. I rub my eyes. Is it mechanical, a little spy? But its path is too winding. It flutters and swings in the foul breeze trapped between the banks, it lifts and hangs.
The butterfly lands on a bud, delicately, as if it fears becoming stuck there forever, and melts into the dim halo of sun behind it.
It’s real! I haven’t seen one since the sun hid away.
The chip-chip starts up again, on the left-hand bank. I duck behind a rusty strut and clamp my hand over my mouth.
The butterfly flies into the tunnel. It flattens itself against the roof and turns from bright yellow to sooty black. I squint through a rivet hole at the robots smashing down the slope, stiff legs digging in. Their gun-arms point at the ground for now. They swivel their heads ninety degrees and look straight at the tunnel.
I bite into my palm.
They start towards us, eyes scanning.
My heart beats time to the fluttering of the butterfly as it separates itself from the roof, soot sifting down from its wings.
A sharp crack and it falls to the floor, a tiny extinguished yellow sun.
They turn away and march up the opposite bank.
I count out five minutes and pick up what’s left: it lies in my hand, powdery smooth, an angled wing intact and dragging. Real! My saviour. A message from the sun.
I tip it into my scarf before I creep from the tunnel to wipe the dirt from the bud where the butterfly sat. The thing is, you don’t know for sure. One day, maybe it will flower.
When we were small and still had parents, my brother Zachy came in, his mouth stuffed full of buds from our magnolia tree. I went out to look and the branches were bare, but that night I dreamt of pink blossoms blooming out of his mouth.
In the morning, I opened the dustbin and the buds were still there, masticated pink and green, mixed with his spit, nature’s puke.
Something I remember, but he doesn’t. Not Zachy. Zachy doesn’t remember much at all.
The rain comes down, pouring cold muck all over me, obscuring the once-shiny tracks already burdened with tons of robot gunners going west.
I scramble through rotted brambles to the top of the embankment. A stream runs parallel to the tracks in the dip of the bank, hidden from view of the trains. It’s just a silver trickle, junk strewn over its banks, but Zachy told me to follow it to the ocean. Its chemical reflection hurts my eyes and I think of my brother, a phosphorescent hatred burning inside him.
When I was little, maybe they should have taken him out and shot him by firing squad. Saved us.
But I only think that sometimes. Not often. Hardly ever.
When I was little, there was a winter of never-ending snow and after that the haze came. The sky turned brown and shut everything out. Just like my brother.
What started it, Zachy?
I have my theories.
For example, my mother left us first.
For example, my father began to not want to know.
But all that came later. What really started it?
For me, it was the sun disappearing.
The sun hid itself behind the wall of brown haze. No matter how often I told myself it was still there, smoldering, I thought it was dead. Gone.
For him…for Zachy…for my brother…it was also the sun.
The one thing he does remember.
Us on a beach, foggy muck and clouds, Mum and Dad. And the sun came out. For the very last time, but we didn’t know it then. The sun forced itself through. It illuminated a rock, a patch of sand; it lit up a crashing wave. I saw it creep across my mother’s face and lift the corners of her mouth, tears sparkling in her smile. I saw my Dad, face upturned in warmth and wonder.
And then my brother.
I saw my brother.
Arms rigid by his side, eyes narrowed against the sun.
He turned his back to it, shoving his hands over his eyes, the sun burning a fiery outline around him, as if they were an eclipse. His scream crumpled everything.
The beach, the sky, fell apart.
My last memory of the sun: Mum and Dad and me, and my brother, the new generation, the one who hated the yellow sun, the one who had just seen it for the first time.
This is why he stays in his rooms. This is why he prefers not to go out.
Sometimes I long to touch his hand. I regret not holding it that day on the beach…Maybe it would all be different…
But once our training began, physical contact was forbidden. The closest I have come to touching my brother is across a Ping-Pong table, on holiday. A week of being normal: lips and eyelids twitching, fingers pressing on surfaces. Each of us alone, no matter how many recruits they stuffed into the room.
We glanced at one another and Zachy seemed to understand.
Something for the hands, the ball bouncing back and forth. We played all night in a room with a fake ocean on one wall, painted blue sky stretching overhead.
It never worked: such massive relief when we could get back to the button.
Why did they make us try for something we couldn’t be?
My theory: they kept us away so we could see how much we needed it, how we could never do without it.
And Zachy was happy: the youngest, but the most talented, an independent pilot while I still needed supervision. They didn’t trust me, and they were right not to. I always wanted something else.
That first Christmas after the beach, Zachy set his back firmly to us, eyes on the screen, soft lumps of candy floss melting off in slim fingers from the sky, exploding yellow light over his determined little face.
Did Mum and Dad give him the game on purpose? Already knowing…hoping…
But…I saw the fear in my mother’s eyes when they said he was good—very good—and I knew that she wanted to cry.
After our dad handed us over, I was so pleased I still had a little brother, a friend…until they let me visit his private rooms for my first live combat demo.
He sat hunched in front of a bright monitor, screens on either side angled like blinkers, controller swaying in his hands as he powered towards tiny cross-hairs on the world map. He reached for a slice of pizza and bit down hard after he pressed the button. He was so accurate that I swear he calculated the number of targets per slice.
‘Before and after?’ he said.
I was about to ask him what he meant when he flashed up the pictures.
On the left, a group of men chatting under a tree in the land of the yellow sun.
On the right, something that was like the sun leaving.
‘See? No blood,’ said Zachy, turning back to the screens.
I watched him direct the drones, so stiff and straight compared to butterflies, as they shot their yellow suns of hell and blasted away the people below.
I turned away when he zoomed in to street view. At least it was forbidden to have the sound on.
I remarked that the explosions were slower than in the simulations.
‘Who said real life sucks?’ said Zachy.
Shaking their hands is the first thing I will do when I get to the yellow land. I will squeeze their hands hard.
Flakes of snow plummet down, heavy with dirt, sticking to me like wads of chewed gum, unmelted. I peel them off my jacket and look to where the stream disappears in the west.
An odd hum cuts through the silence. And then the sound of robots in the distance. More this time.
I slither down the bank and sprint along the tracks to the next tunnel. Further west.
I put my hand in my pocket and close it around the butterfly’s remains as I try to calm my breathing.
Another theory: they only chose me to keep him company. I will never be as good as him. Zachy does not pause. Not like me. Those people whisper to me in the moment before I press the button. They whisper sun, they whisper a land without robots.
‘Don’t hesitate,’ says Zachy.
But he and I are different because sometimes I can’t help thinking that there might be a second chance: I saw the sun go out in my Mother’s face and it proved there was more than darkness.
Even though, now, because of Zachy, I too take people out.
But not by firing squad.
I do it at a distance. I press the button and across the world a lump of phosphorescence surges from the sky and illuminates even the daylight.
‘Don’t think,’ Zachy says, but sometimes, just before I press the button, I imagine that the people in the yellow land have faith. I imagine that they finally believe in that god of theirs they secretly doubted: all those yellow plagues upon them are actually salvation.
Lucky them! I think.
Each time it’s harder.
Each time, I swallow.
I swallow and press the button.
I swallow, I press, the hot light follows them, swallows them, they are gone.
In the land of the yellow sun, they have more to lose. They have families. There are no robots and people still feel important.
I imagine skimming across the ocean to meet them, the haze lifting as I reach the opposite shore, the sun opening its arms and embracing me.
The people will be curious, prodding at my clothes. It’ll be a delicate situation and I’ll have to lie. I’ll tell them I’m an escaped civilian. I’ll tell them about my brother. I’ll tell them Zachy is to blame.
And he is. All those targets; he was always more accurate than me. Anyway, I had to leave him. He’s not the same as me. And the people would never accept him.
The robots are getting closer. I hunker down and warm myself with dreams of the yellow land.
I know this land exists.
How do I know?
I know because my brother showed me a picture of a group of men standing under a tree.
But…after that first time, I didn’t look closely again.
It’s true, I’ve never been there, but I can feel it. I can feel the clean buds, smooth in my fingers, waiting to blossom.
And though it’s too late for Zachy, I can’t forget him, eyes huge and black, yellow hair gleaming in a halo, and his scream hitting the beach, a flat sharp star-thrower of sound, shocking the sun asleep.
I can’t forget the cold stream of hate pouring over my heart. And over the hearts of Mum and Dad. Soon after, they began to fade from us and we became button children. Unfortunately gifted.
I know the warped longing in my brother’s eyes.
But, much later, I found masticated pepperoni and cheese puked up in the bin.
The hum is starting to hurt my ears and the tunnel grows strangely light. I stick my head out a little to look. And cover my eyes.
The last time I saw Zachy, he sat bathed in yellow from the screens, mini-suns blooming in the desert, watered by his hands.
The fire continued, indiscriminate.
‘Your targets,’ he laughed, for the first time since the beach. More, said his fingers, fluttering over the buttons.
I uncover my eyes and narrow them against the light. Am I still dreaming? In the distance I see a yellow circle, bright against the dark snow.
And I know that I should get away from the tunnel.
‘Go where they least expect you,’ Zachy said.
But I can’t move.
I realize that my brother is not as unthinking as I’d supposed. He has more theories than me. For example, he told me about the land of the yellow sun, how to get there, what to expect.
Which is why he ruled out going himself.
Which is why his fingers press down harder and harder.
Which is why…
The sky is unbearably bright. Is the sun coming back? Here? In this country? Zachy says it’s impossible.
My Zachy, my golden brother who hates the sun; he is big, but he is three, and his wide red mouth is jammed open to the day the sun froze him.
But still…I like to think that he sucked in the sun that day on the beach, that it lodged deep inside him in the vacuum left by his scream, waiting.
My Zachy, a better murderer than me. But only by superior talent.
The yellow circle gets closer. Butterflies! Too many to be real. I pull the scarf out of my pocket. In the powder I notice the tiny crush of wires and I know that Zachy has sent them.
I worry that my brother did not swallow the sun. Most likely, it swallowed him and he’s burning forever.
The light sears my eyes and I hear myself screaming.
But I concentrate hard and imagine Zachy, frozen, the pink buds inside his cheeks exploding out, icy petals blooming and melting into heat.
I imagine that there is time for the people in the land of the yellow sun to forgive him.
I know that my brother looks before and after each explosion and I wave and smile. He will see me.
I close my eyes and feel the real thing, warmth on my upturned face, as I hurry towards the land of the yellow sun.