There were a lot of ghosts. It was a given, and she’d known it the whole time, but it still startled her a little as the UAV moved over the desert. They were usually invisible to the naked eye, but curiously enough tended to show up on camera. It made the otherwise empty desert seem like a fairly crowded place. Some of them looked up and waved, and just went about their business. Which seemed to be, mostly, wandering around aimlessly and talking to each other.
She wondered if they got bored, or if ghosts could get bored. It had, after all, been three-hundred years.
A whole three centuries of a nearly-empty earth. And then she wondered why all the ghosts congregated here, in the Midwestern area of the former United States of America. They had never seen ghosts anywhere else, perhaps there was just something about the area?
“Ladies and gentleman, the world tour has started!” she announced, moving the controls of the UAV smoothly. The secondary pilot grinned at her with his dagger-like teeth, the spines down his back pricked in excitement, and sat back, looking up at the massive array of screens.
For Anahita, it was just like the first time she saw her world all over again. While she had been born and raised in the refugee city, and had grown up in a sky with too many moons, streaked with orange and red, the blue grasses and violet-brown trees…she couldn’t fight the part of her mind that was truly human, and recognized its home immediately. The burning yellow sun. The blue sky.
She turned the UAV and it looked backwards, towards the small town they operated from. It was small, cramped, dusty and stuck out from the desert with its crude farmland and little garden sanctuary, just like any other earth town, but it was still not so bad a place. Then she turned the UAV back out, to the Midwestern desert, and pushed the controls towards. The sleek, alien device moved smoothly, like it was swimming through the air, and thus began her travels by proxy.
The desert covered most of the former Northern Americas. An endless expanse of dust and sand, bone-white and golden for the most part, with occasional patches of scrubland clinging to survival, or thin rivers that trickled through cracked-mud riverbanks. The Mississippi crawled, only a foot or so wide, sluggishly through the channel it had carved, and she steered the UAV down with it, following southwards.
Passing over the excavation site, she circled low and saw the workers, a mixture of human and lurks, look up and smile and wave. They knew that the mission was to be launched soon.
The desert was more or less unchanged as they explored. They already knew what to expect, but the aerial view made up for plenty of interest. They followed a roving band of clickers for a few hours, a half-dozen individuals who trucked forwards through the sand, gears whirling inside their bodies, bronze and copper metal faces looking to and fro, searching for anything alive.
They followed them south and west, to one of the larger clockwork cities. Its moving, shifting spires reaching into the sky. She circled the UAV around them and weaved it between buildings that occasionally rumbled and moved of their own accord in some unchanging pattern. A massive fountain with a living statue of a woman, composed entirely of pneumatics and gears, swam with koi made of gold, and workers went to and fro in their set patterns, unchanging, unnoticing of the world around them.
Only when a guard, some mixture of human and a massive hawk, with silver blades for wings and a tunic made out of platinum threads woven so fine as to flow like cloth, caught attention of the UAV and took chase did they leave the shining, repetitive city. She recalled once listening to a traveler tell his tales of how he once walked clear through one of the clicker cities, timing so perfect that not a thing touched or saw him.
The UAV, fortunately, easily could out-fly the guard, who eventually wheeled back to the city, and she took it to the higher atmospheres, where it went into a circling pattern for the night as she slept. The next morning, they powered southwards and over Mexico. She gasped as they rounded over a series of deep craters that formed a mountainous range, and saw for the first time in her life the green of grass that spread further than a few yards. Of a forest! How wonderful!
So few people had been to the southern American jungles, after all. She steered the UAV in low, and slowed it down, weaving her way through the grassy forest, which slowly became a thick, lush jungle. Flowers the size of doorways bloomed, vivid red and orange. Trees hundreds of meters tall towered overhead, and she wove the UAV carefully around looped vines bigger around than her waist would have been. Here and there, she saw things move.
A creature that could have once been a parrot, but now had slim green leaves for feathers and a dark wooden beak looked at her with beady black eyes, before fluttering off, becoming invisible among the plant life. She only thought about pulling out of the jungle when she found a clearing and spotted a group of plantlings resting, their soft membranous skin covered in dew, and long grassy hair braided crudely. She avoided nearing them, curious as she was, after all plantlings were a lot that was quick to anger and attack.
There was a flash of copper, later, and she chased the UAV after a clicker, one that was fast and built like a jaguar, hurrying through the jungle. A messenger, she assumed.
She pulled up out of the jungle at the urging of the copilot, and soared further south, until the jungle faded again and they neared another city of gears and metal, and gave it a wide berth when they spotted condors that were armored in gold and swinging steel talons.
And to Antarctica the following day. The death had barely touched here, and she curiously observed a group of penguins before steering the UAV through a small storm, and into the waiting shed of the Antarctic Observation Platform. A tall woman dressed in furs performed maintenance on the UAV to assure them it would stay in working condition the rest of the trip, and spoke over the videophone with a gently accented voice. They were back in the air by the next day, and this time Anahita shivered with excitement. Up, they crawled over the Atlantic, up and to the East. While the ocean was largely uneventful, sometimes they would catch glimpses of things moving under the endless blue waves. Seagulls still soared, and the UAV followed a flock of them until a tentacle that must have reached fifty meters into the air snapped up out of the water with lightning speed and grabbed one, yanking it down into the waters below.
She pulled the UAV up higher after that, and they stared in amazement as nighttime fell and the bioluminescent spots of something the size of an oil tanker under the waves appeared, and then were joined by other creatures of the same type. They converged, lights flashing and flickering, then dove or faded out of sight.
In South Africa, they cautiously slowed and approached a sight few had seen. The trees were not terribly large, but for their size, they were…strange. They grew everywhere, but only here had they seen a truly impressive forest of them. The flesh trees, twisted upwards, their multi-branched, stiffened arms reaching to the sky, skin hardened and calloused. Some of them were old, very old, and probably deeply sleeping, but there were a few, here and there, that were quite fresh.
She steered past one that was newly rooted, still shaped like a young woman, eyes glassed over, arms just starting to split apart. The ground around her was scratched and scraped, like she’d tried to dig herself out before finally falling and stretching to the sky. In a moment of misthought, she moved close enough that the tail of the UAV gently brushed the side of the new tree, and it shuddered. Although the microphone of the UAV was not on, they could tell that she had started screaming. The trees nearby all shuddered and opened hidden mouths as well.
They moved away quickly, passing over a tribe nearby of unchanged humans, who glanced at the UAV with only a flicker of curiosity, before returning to their business. With humanity decimated, the wilderness here, in Africa, had returned. Scrublands and grasslands, just as before. Although, she steered the UAV back over a village, and they muttered and commented as a group of young men ran after a fleeting gazelle, before the men – in mid-stride – hunched over and became furred, massive facsimiles of hyenas and tackled it to the ground.
They continued northwards, over giraffes and elephants, and everybody on the team expressed their distaste as they spotted a herd of zebras – but among the black and white stripes, there were individuals that were partially bronze, or iron, and some that were entirely mechanical replicas of the equines. Even here, the clickers took hold, she noted.
Another night of rest for her, and then they crossed over the Mediterranian, where on small island flocks of birdlike creatures roosted. When she steered the UAV near the cliffs they were on, they came in close to curiously observe, looking like nude women with hooked, hawklike beaks on their chins under their mouths, and a bird’s legs, and wings instead of arms. Then they lost interested, and returned to their nests, where down-covered infants nibbled on rotting fish and leathery eggs waited.
The ruins of Europe, as it turned out, were still there. Nobody went into the heart of France, or Britain, or Germany, not for what could be anywhere in there. And here they were, looking for it. It wasn’t hard to spot, as they circled over the overgrown rubble and dust that was once London, and the UAV’s sensors picked up life. They came in close and caught a fast glimpse of a girl, a little one with dark hair and eyes, and a wide smile, climbing over the ruined buildings and picking weed-flowers that had started to grow.
Then Anahita frantically pulled the UAV up as what she could only describe as a dragon lunged from seemingly nowhere and attempted to snap it out of the air. It was massive and shifted like a liquid just as they watched it for a moment, before the UAV was out of reach and it turned down. Then they watched as the girl started to skip off, and the dragon dutifully followed, padding along like a much-overgrown dog behind her. They turned the camera away, fully aware of what exposure could lead to, and pushed southeast.
They spent the next day with the UAV as the Saudi Arabian shelter, which existed just a few tentative kilometers from a large clicker-city, and the militant personnel there looked over the UAV, and spoke little, simply doing any needed maintenance and checking the device over. The captain of the base, a man with dark skin and a harsh, raspy voice told them not to go into Russia, and then thanked him for the advice with no intent to follow it.
But first, they had the Indian Ocean to explore, and even at full height its most impressive feature was still fully ungraspable, as the creature stretched past the horizon like an island chain. One made of chitenous armor where lichen collected and birds roosted, that occasionally rumbled and moved a few feet forwards or backwards. It stretched all the way from Maldives to the Great Barrier Reef, where massive towers of coral stretched into the sky out of the water like some sort of bizarre city.
The reef was a sanctuary of life, if that life was quite unusual. They observed huge schools of fish and jellyfish, pods of dolphins and whales of various sorts, and even glimpses of massive squids resting and feeding in the shallow, rich blue-green waters. Then there was Australia, where they soared low and slowly around the edges of the last truly human place on earth. They had no clearance to enter the territory known only as 23, but even from the edges, they could see fertile farmlands, and caught glimpses of people tending to them, or ones in uniforms who tensed and peered at the UAV through the scopes of their weapons before letting it pass by.
Indonesia passed in a blur of sandy, deserted islands, spotted with vast open-mine pits, and the occasional tall spire of a golden clicker city, a flicker of a messenger whale plated in titanium here, a seagull made completely out of golden paper-thin blades there, and then up, into the heart of India, where a truly astounding sight awaited them.
The largest clockworks city in the world, perhaps in all of existence. It spanned for hundreds of miles in any direction, a sprawling, ornate work of art, the people and animals and things that were neither operating in perfect patterns. Women who looked like dark bronze marionettes wearing saris of woven steel silk shined and washed the immense brass walls and walkways of the cities. Men wearing plated golden armor walked to and fro, observing with camera eyes. Massive moving statues were everywhere, swinging their many arms in a repetitive, slow dance, and pigeons who were strangely unaffected by the metal disease roosted in nooks and crannies.
What they ate, Anahita thought, she didn’t want to know.
The city was so huge and glorious that they spent several days in exploration, careful to avoid the guards or other things that would notice and could attack the UAV with spring-loaded steel blades or slicing wires. There was a center to the city, a massive gold and brass monument, a temple, but the guards were so thick around it – dogs the size of cars made out of silver, centaurs made of copper and partially of glass that showed the gears and wires whirring about inside their bodies, all kinds of strange things – that they dared not move any closer to it.
Then up through China. A desert of pale dust. Not sand, but true dust. There were ghosts here, too, but they were not the bored, simple people that she had seen before. These were specters, wraiths that drifted through the dust, twisted and malformed in fear and pain, attacking each other and attempting to attack the UAV at seemingly random intervals, while others simply crouched and cried or screamed and thrashed endlessly. Nothing was alive here. They had traveled, and they knew, that this area, the dead dust, was nothing but death. And it was more than death.
It was a battlefield and a neutral zone.
At first, she almost thought there were trees, then she saw their fleshy texture, and watched as the ground became less dust…and more of a softly throbbing mat of meat under the UAV. They wheeled high above the infectious range, just in case, and peered downwards. Nobody entered what was once Russia. Nobody entered, and nobody left. If there was something to be said about the clickers and their clockwork virus, they did a damn fine job of at least keeping something worse at bay through unknown means.
They only did a quick circling, enough to see whole cities of flesh, malformed monsters wandering to and fro, the long-distance camera a little fuzzy on the UAV, before jetting Eastwards. Somewhere between Russia and Alaska, everyone looking at the screens or the data blacked out temporarily, then came to as if nothing had happened once the UAV entered Canada. They knew that they had observed something, but a quick rewind of the video feed provided only static and the amnesia showed no signs of clearing.
They quickly decided that perhaps this was a good thing.
Down through Canada they went, watching as the snowy tundra slowly started to turn into desert, and down to the Golden Gate bridge, which truly was golden now, as it had been assimilated into a clicker city where cars that operated and wind-up wheels that brass men cranked every so often went to and fro.
And then the UAV turned Eastwards…and headed home.
All things considered, the worldwide tour had taken nearly two weeks, and Anahita was hardly satisfied. But there would be more, her copilot assured her, tail wagging. After all, he pointed out, the UAV’s were easy for his kind to manufacture, and they would need more data. This had, after all, just been a preliminary tour.
Anahita smiled, then, and looked at the screens as the UAV slowly circled in on autopilot for a landing, wherin it’d be taken to be disinfected through god-knows-what means, and watched the ghosts.
Several of them, men and women and fading specters alike, waited on the roof, wearing lab coats. One, a plump woman with long hair that billowed constantly in a phantom breeze smiled and watched the UAV before starting to clap, before they all applauded silently.
At least, Anahita thought…somebody respected this first tour.