I no longer recognise the city where I was born.

It’s been three years since it all started. They asked me to come across the ocean, back to that place, where I was both given life and my name.

It stood eternally, proud and unapologetic, for thousands upon thousands of years. It saw wave upon wave of invaders and defenders, many changes of name, language and people. Many grand buildings, and not so grand ones, pierced the skyline, hugging the river that was its vena cava. We used to admire the old architecture, laughed at the modern ones, shaking our heads at the misguided ingenuity of man. The river now lay stagnant, almost filled in, desperately pinched. It was full of the remains of those buildings, as well as many of the millions of the inhabitants, bones lurking under the muddy surface.

I would have given anything to see the modern buildings again. Anything recognisable. The city beside the river lay degraded and twisted, ruined. It had been only a few years since my last visit but the world was so changed by the event and its aftermath that I may as well have been away for an aeon. Its trees were completely grey and brown, trunks hanging down into the river or across roads and dirt.

I don’t know how, but I survived. I was one of the strong ones. I could still walk unaided and had all body parts present and accounted for. That’s why they asked me to come, to help the few who were still alive. The contamination was still present but at acceptable levels, apparently. I’m not entirely sure about this, but it’s hard to tell when you don’t even have sufficient power to run an x-ray machine. If you could find one that still worked.

The deformed metal skeletons of structures loomed over my head. I could still see the shattered glass panels that were hanging precariously in place, the charred interiors, stonework crumbling and ripped away. Bricks and boulders and steel beams were still strewn across the street in the less-used areas, starting to accumulate moss in the damp. Thankfully most of the bodies had been removed from the main city but I’m sure, in a city that size with millions of people, there are still thousands out there, locked up and unburied. The underground had been sealed off since it all began, and no one dared venture down into the endless, fetid tunnels. So many people had sealed themselves away down there, like they had done before, but there was no more safety there than above ground. It was everywhere and there was no escape. No one knows for sure but from my own experience, I would say that the percentage of deaths from suicide in the immediate aftermath would be around 30-35%. God knows I thought about it myself, but it wouldn’t have been fair to all the people I watched die.

I stepped off the small boat at the makeshift jetty. I looked around, desperately trying to get my bearings. All the bridges, so many bridges across the river, lay in pieces. Some had been patched with wood and stone, but very crudely. Roadways, wires and pavements lay jutting up from the river in sharp chunks, the rain having washed off the blood and ooze. At least it still rained here, although you could only be exposed safely for five minutes, and that was a guess at best. The sky hung low and heavy, but hopefully it would stay dry. The air was so thick still, and it was a little hard to breathe.

The ground was cracked and crumbled. I carefully stepped around the piles of asphalt and dirt. I heard a voice say, ‘Be careful of the sinkholes.’

So it was true. We’d heard at home about massive sinkholes appearing in the city, the extensive underground structures succumbing and collapsing from the stress of the disaster and lack of maintenance.  But it was hard to verify what was going on in other countries. Communications were patchy and infrequent, mostly word of mouth and rumour. This is what it must have been like before the invention of the telegraph. Even if we had the power, even if the magnetics had been unaffected, the satellites were still falling out of the sky, massive holes punched in them by the infinite debris in orbit, which in turn created even more debris. There was a rumour that the International Space Station was knocked out a couple of months ago and landed in the Kalahari Desert. The Internet and even phones were for now a thing of the past. We didn’t even have the capacity to find the oceanic co-axial cables, let alone restore the connection. Basic messages were carried by those strong enough to travel but that happened sporadically – fuel was precious, travel was rare and messages could take months to get between bases.

We all walked slowly and deliberately. Apparently new sinkholes were appearing every day, and there were a couple close to where we landed. We walked uphill from the river, and the pale moonlight grey stone of the buildings, charred and patchy in parts, seemed very familiar. There was a frontage in mosaic that was largely intact, and I saw a name I recognised. It was an old train station. The red, black and white signage of the streets confirmed my suspicions. Only then it hit me. I remember being 21 years old, lining up outside one of the beautiful and grand consular buildings in the area because I needed to vote in my country’s elections, on my own for the first time and feeling content. Even after all I’d seen, I couldn’t help a tear coming to my eye.

I looked around. The church in the middle of the road that I remembered partially remained, its columns stripped for rebuilding purposes. The fittings for the phone boxes were sticking up from the ground, wires splayed everywhere like dropped spaghetti.  My guide walked further up the block, looked around the corner, and beckoned me to him.

‘Slowly.’

There was an acrid smell in the air, faint but discernible. This must be a sinkhole.

I crept slowly towards the corner. I could see the pale earth around the remains of the road. I caught sight of the hole, and had to step back as I experienced a dizziness I’ve never felt before.

My guide sat me down a couple of feet away, but I felt compelled to crawl closer to look again. I couldn’t stop staring.

The sinkhole was about 50 metres across, at a conservative estimate. The drop was sharp and sheer, the pale dense earth covering the rock strata. Rubble was piled at the bottom, and there were various broken pipes and cables hanging loosely, swaying slightly in the breeze.

I couldn’t stop looking at the tunnels. Two underground train tunnels were exposed, the jagged concrete split open. Straight underneath me dangled twisted, rusty rails. On the other side a train carriage hung precariously from the tunnel, the livery peeling and faded from the elements and the remaining carriages barely visible behind. I’m not sure if it was my imagination or not, but I thought I could see skeletons still trapped inside. I stared for what felt like an eternity. My guide gently placed  a hand on my shoulder.

All I could think of to say was, ‘Will it fall?’

‘Eventually. The coupling can’t last forever.’

He helped me to my feet, even though I couldn’t take my eyes away from the train.

‘Do you see them?’

He sighed. His face looked grim. ‘All the time.’ He wrapped his hand around my shoulder and steered me away, past the sinkhole.

‘Come on, Doctor,’ he said. ‘The morgue awaits.’

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