M-Brane SF #21 is now on sale and very much worth picking up; it features some really amazing work by some really talented authors. I close out the issue with my post-apocalyptic short story “Centralia”.
“Centralia” came from several different places. Most prominently, it came from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which was incredibly inspiring to me in terms of what a post-apocalyptic story could look like, feel like, and do. The Road gave me permission to write stories that presented the end of the world without explaining how it ended; the fact that everything had changed was enough to go on, and examining what that change meant to the people who lived through and in it became the focus.
The story also came from my own background and experiences growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania; I didn’t live in coal country, but I went there more than once, and it can be a profoundly affecting landscape (there are reasons why some of the film adaptation of The Road was shot there). Centralia is a real place, the fires really do burn endlessly underground, and a town really did die there–and is even still in the process of dying. Towns die slow, and they leave great bodies behind, though even those don’t last for long once the last inhabitant is gone.
The image of constant underground fire is obviously haunting–it was a profound inspiration for the makers of the Silent Hill film, among others–and the idea of coal leads in a kind of organic way to images of trains. From this mix emerged the core around which the story is built: the idea of the mindless continuation of that for which we no longer have any reason. Those who have left Earth behind continue to extract resources they may not even need in ways that are bizarrely archaic and inefficient. Those left behind on Earth travel endlessly for lack of anything else to do, though no place is better than any other and everywhere is rapidly getting worse. The trains push on through the night, automated and mindless. The fire burns beneath Centralia, unseen and quiet and patient, until at last two people come along who can feel its warmth… and find warmth in each other. They give it purpose, and they give each other purpose, which might be all any of us have when everything else is gone.
There’s really no proper end to the story. It never felt to me like it needed one.
Excerpt under the cut.
“Where are we going?” And I tell her that I don’t know. It’s a strange question to ask, and I don’t know why she thought I’d have an answer.
Not too long after that, the ground starts to get warm.
The rain is steaming on the surface of the blacktop. She stops and touches my hand, staring ahead at the road with her mouth open. “What is it?” she breathes. “Oh, God, what is it?”
Cutting across the road is another crack, at first glance no different from the others we’ve seen, except the steam is rising thickly from it, and then I know that it’s not steam. It’s smoke. It’s heat and smoke, and when I take a step forward and then another, her hand at my back and the fear vibrating all through it, I see a soft glow deep down through the crack, steady. It’s patient, I think. It’s like something in a dream. I take her hand and I pull her gently forward, and we walk around the crack and on. I don’t know why I don’t turn back. I feel the heat of that glow on my neck, on my face and hands. I don’t know why she follows me. Past the crack there’s more heat, and through trees and scrubby brush I see more smoke rising, fighting to get airborne, weighed down in the rain.
“Someone told me about a bad place once,” she murmurs. She’s stepping carefully, as though the ground can’t be trusted. “Where there’s always fire.”
I don’t know if this is a bad place. I do know that we’re here now. Except for the hiss of the rain, it’s so quiet. No trains, no thunder-rumble of wheels and metal. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard this much quiet.
And under us, there’s a big fire. An always fire.