The Long Frame
by Steven Popkes
The Invader’s ships didn’t conquer – they destroyed. Those caught at the Connaught Range fought to the last.
Connaught Range had a secret laboratory. When there was no hope, the soldiers, civilian researchers, and their families uploaded themselves into the protected Server Farm, fighting the monsters from their own minds to make a place of safety. Maybe the Invaders would find them. Maybe they would be rescued. Maybe not. There was no way to tell.
But no one came and over fifteen years of peace they made their own lives.
Now, that’s over. The Dragon is coming.
~ 1 ~
Isaac lived on the border of the town, right where the resolution started to get choppy and pixilated. Though he didn’t like to think about falling and breaking his ancient hip, he liked to climb up on the flat roof of his little bungalow and sit on the bench facing east. From there he could watch clouds grow out of block colors, taking on tint and shadow, growing in definition until by the time they blew over him they looked completely real.
Clouds were the most mobile of forms but from here he could see other things, too: the march of forest from painter’s splotches of brown and green to the mix of pine and maple near town. The progression of geology from simple streaks of brown, black and gray into the ridges of sandstone and granite that surrounded Grovers Mill. Birds flew out of the clouds as mere curved streaks in the distance to become terns and seagulls, sparrows chased by a red-tailed hawk.
The only thing that went from the town to the borderlands was Main Street, a road that proceeded from Nobel Circle at the west side of town, around the town square, then out and away to the east until it reached here. As it passed the town limit the pavement changed to gravel. Then, to dirt. Until finally, it became the impression of a trail lost in the green splotches of the woods. Isaac kept a close eye on the road.
It wasn’t just idle observation, either. With his binoculars he could see things that had just formed. All he had to do was wait and they would come to him, ripe for claim. Isaac wasn’t above wandering the road a little deeper into the borderland to pick up things to sell on Anniversary Day: the smudged suggestion of a few Greek coins that became solid brass drachmas. The outline in a flat rock that became the fossil of an ammonite.
But Isaac didn’t go past the gravel. He’d heard there was nothing beyond the clouds but pulsing wireframes and blinding mist. Isaac was in no hurry to confirm such stories. You could meet anything out there. Death. Destruction. The Dragon. The Gray Man. Anything. Isaac liked the beginning of the edge of things just fine. The actual edge of things was too damned dangerous to approach.
Isaac scanned the borderlands. Anniversary Day was tomorrow. He needed more stuff to sell. The sky looked odd towards the south. He recognized the sheen. The beginning of an allocation shift. Isaac didn’t like to be outside during a shift. He preferred the warmth and false security of being indoors.
Today the trees seemed unusually well defined and obscured the last vestiges of trail. He saw movement in the distance—perhaps a mile away, though judging distances in the borderlands was a chancy thing. The movement seemed behind the trees. Isaac hid behind his chimney.
A figure rounded one of the trees and stopped.
Isaac could see her clearly—strange in itself. A young girl no older than twelve wearing bright blue shorts and a shirt with a pink dinosaur on the front. Her hair was dark and close cut. He couldn’t see much of her face—she was shading her eyes with her hand and peering towards the town. Abruptly, she looked right at him, grinned and waved. He could see freckles across her nose.
Startled, Isaac waved back then hid behind his chimney.
Maybe a mile. Maybe fifteen minutes until she got here. That is, if it really was a mile and not twenty feet. If she continued to walk and not fly. If she really was a girl.
He slipped carefully off the back edge of the roof and started walking towards town. This was more than he knew how to handle.
He had to tell somebody.