A scorching wind blew through the streets. The air still crackled faintly, like far off popcorn, while everything shimmered hypnotically in the heat. A sickly smell hung over the buildings. It was quiet. Birds sang and leaves rustled, but they only highlighted the void that had filled the world.
A man shambled along the side-walk with the aid of a walking stick. He had ruffled white hair and moved with a pronounced limp. Old Grouch was what he was called by most. It had been too long since he had heard someone call him by his real name. He had no family or friends, and his bitterness left a sour impression on any who knew him.
He was a relic of the past, of a different world altogether. He had been for years. Society had always moved quicker than he had cared for. Even as a child he had hated what others loved. Popular music was noisy drivel without soul, yet everyone else ate it up ravenously. Phones removed people from communities rather than bringing them closer together. Machines cost people their jobs and made everyone lazy and incompetent. He just did not understand people’s divine fascination with technology.
People always told him that he was antisocial and rude, that it was no wonder that nobody talked to him since he didn’t even leave the house or ‘connect’ to others online. The way he saw it, he had not changed his routine for his entire life. He went to the shops, visited the park to feed the ducks, and spent time in the local library. He had watched as the shops emptied since people could have it all delivered right to their homes. He had watched as the libraries all closed down through lack of interest. He had watched as children stopped playing in the parks and instead dwelled in the digital realms of the internet. Even when he did still see people out, they always had their eyes on a phone screen.
No. He was not the antisocial one. Society itself was. Or had been. He wasn’t entirely sure of when his perception of society had ceased to exist. Sometime after the technology boom of the Fifties. Digilinks became popular just before then, allowing people to mentally inhabit digital avatars within games and social media. He thought back on the fat slobs sitting in chairs all day with those stupid helmets on. But then, glasses had been turned into screens long before then. Music players were installed into peoples heads for no other reason than they could be.
The late Fifties brought about the ‘Age of Augments’ as the media had coined it. Fifty eight, he remembered vaguely. Robots had finally been mastered to the level where reliable bionic limbs could be created and fitted to humans. Computer chips in the brain reworked any mental problems while the bionics solved the physical. Disability and frailty were a thing of the past. Man was rapidly becoming God. Or they would have been, should anyone have been willing to get off their backsides long enough to use these advancements to their fullest.
They had tried to wire him up too. The doctors ‘advised’ him that a bit of tech here and a bit of tech there would solve all of his problems and stop him from wasting their time. As if that wasn’t their job to see to his health needs. Bloody fools, the lot of them. No. He would stay natural. They called him flawed but he embraced that. To be flawed was to be human.
He arrived at the park and shuffled his way across the long grass toward the pond. At the sight of him, ducks quacked and gathered to the edge, eagerly awaiting him. Nobody else was there. He lowered himself down onto the bench where he always sat and greeted the birds with a smile.
“Good afternoon, my feathered friends. I hope this heat isn’t bothering you too much. Yes, yes. Bread for everyone.”
As he handed out the bread, he wiped sweat from his forehead with an already sweat damp sleeve. It had been unusually hot like this for about a week now. He glanced up at the sun scathingly. The bloody thing needed to sort itself out. How was he suppose to feel when even the sun had been better back in his day?
He sat there for over an hour, talking softly to the ducks as he reminisced on the past. He had nowhere else to be and no one else to talk too. To go home was to go to sleep and repeat the cycle that he had been stuck in for too long. He sighed sadly. Would he have been happier with a chatroom inside his head where he could make friends? Was his resentment worth keeping his limp instead of upgrading to a mechanical knee? Would life have been better now if he had just given up, become a zombie to technology and lost his mind with the rest of the world. Were they happy?
Soon the sun began to set and the world donned a shroud of darkness. The temperature fell but hot winds still blew and that ever present crackling sound never faded.
Old Grouch finally moved, stretching his stiff limbs before stuffing the empty bread bag into his pocket and leaving the park. Between the rows of houses, darkness hung like stagnant water. There were no lights. Windows were dark and lampposts stood tall but lifeless like statues from another time.
The nights had been dark for as long as the days had been parched. That was the Sun’s fault too. The bloody solar flare had taken everyone by surprise. Some much more than others. He had been reading at the time. It had been a Thursday evening just as the sun was setting. He had been sat with a copy of a Phillip K. Dick novel when his stand-lamp had suddenly flickered off. At first he had thought it was a powercut or a blown fuse but everything was intact on his end and the power had not returned by morning.
He did not mind the dark though. He found it soothing, especially now that there was nothing to fear. His mind turned to other things as he walked. He would have to find something new for the ducks soon. A few more days and all of the bread would be too mouldy to use. He could live happily on canned food but the ducks deserved better.
Moonlight gradually lifted the darkness in places, giving everything an astral silver glow. Some of the houses were bathed in this thin light, revealing their gloomy interiors to him. A still figure lay sprawled on the ground of one room while a family was slumped in chairs around a dead television in another. The smell was stronger here, surrounded by houses.
The ‘Age of Augments’ had not lasted long. The Sun was a hard mistress who did not like to be ignored. That solar flare had fried everything electrical in the world. There had been an electromagnetic pulse in that wave of heat. Lights, televisions, computers, toasters and clocks had all stopped working at the same instant, as had the computer chips and bionics that had raised men above nature. Some had their brains fried, others had illnesses or disabilities return with a vengeance.
A good many men, women and children had died on that day. Others had dropped in the following days or had been killed in the confused riots that were sparked over food supplies. It would not be long until more lives were lost. People simply did not know how to live without electronics to support them. Where would they find food when the shops were finally picked clean and the houses looted? Most of the survivors were in a bad condition to start with. Everyone was augmented in some way or another. Everyone except for Old Grouch.
He stepped up to a house that looked like every other on the street. It was not locked. He opened the front door and entered into a dark space. A candle stood on a stand which he lit using a box of matches in his pocket. Amber light pushed back the darkness in a flickering pool of warmth that revealed a narrow corridor lined with framed pictures. As he passed each, he took a moment to admire the beautiful works of art.
He entered through another door, a thick slab of dark-wood that seemed out of place in the semi detached house, into a large room that was clustered with objects. A few seconds of work saw a handful of candles lit around the room and a gas heater spreading warmth from the centre. Bookshelves lined the room bearing all kinds of literature while tables supported vases, plants and statues. A single, well padded armchair sat beside the heater.
Old Grouch sat in the chair, picking up a book from a small table at his side and smiled contentedly. He opened the book and took out a brochure for the latest Brainchip Plus that he had been using as a bookmark with a wry chuckle to himself.
Augmentation: the process of making or becoming greater. That was what his dictionary told him. He liked the concept. He had used the lack of neighbours to refit his house and fill it with rare items that others had neglected. Books that had been outcast to boxes in attics and basements and grand furniture that was surrounded by tacky technology designed to fail. Society could keep its technological augmentations. Old Grouch had augments of a purer kind.
He sat in his house alone and began to read in comfort. He had everything that he had ever wanted. But still, he could not help but wonder if those souls who had lived and died within their machines now dreamed an electric dream of the collective humanity. Did they exist in the ether or had oblivion embraced them? Old Grouch did not know. Old Grouch did not much care either.
This is a more recent story, written in 2014 for a short story submission under the theme of ‘Augmentation’. It didn’t get accepted. I think they were wanting more sci-fi and less psychology. Still like the story though. It made a change to write something without multiple characters and events.