#3 – Black Hole Swan

In the distance, the universe ended. Lark watched it happen, his eyes glazed and dull. His fingers scrabbled inside the jar of peanuts, flicking off as much salt and grease in the can as possible. He shoveled the peanuts into his mouth, then checked the time on the monitor.

It was only seventy-five minutes into the morning cycle. The ambient lighting of the station was pale blue, still brilliant, emulating the morning sun on Prosperity. Not that it was particularly good at that; Lark hadn’t been home for the last six shift cycles, but he had grown up there, and he remembered what the sun was really like. Sure, the money was good–everyone who did long-haul posts knew that–but what they didn’t tell the rooks was how fucking boring the waiting was. 

Lark couldn’t help but look at it. They always said you weren’t supposed to, and Grimes was always reminding him not to, but he couldn’t help it. There was nothing else to do. Each day was an endless cycle of routine tests: tests to ensure the station’s orbit was stable; tests to make sure the prisoners were alive; tests to the disposal mechanism’s release signal. How could he be blamed for sneaking a look every once in a while? You couldn’t get this kind of view on Prosperity, after all.

Even with the UV filters on at 99%, Lark had to wipe his eyes and look away every few moments. A vibrant blue tail unfurled itself from the star which made up one-half of the binary system. The tail was in the process of being swallowed by the other half of the system: the black hole which Cygnus Station orbited. 

“You shouldn’t look at that,” said a voice over his shoulder. Grimes. The man’s voice was neither angry nor condescending. Just empty. Grimes had been on-station longer than Lark, and he was beginning to show it. “You don’t want to burn your eyes out.”

“I’m not going to burn my eyes out looking at a black hole. That’s the opposite of what they do.”

“Not talking about the black hole. Figured you might have noticed the supergiant star in the last few shifts.”

“I put the filters on.”

“Yeah, those filters are rated for shit. Red stars, maybe yellow at best. But blue? Might as well start fitting yourselves for a new eye now.”

Lark muttered something under his breath, but said no more to Grimes. The latter man was busying himself at the console, checking the readings of the magnetic shields which plated every element of the station. He hummed under his breath as his eyes shifted from monitor to monitor. Steam rose from his coffee cup, untouched next to him. A faint whirring sound could be heard. Everything, including the traces of water in the vapour, would be recycled and reused. Cygnus Station was meant for the long-term guest.

“I already did the mag-checks, Grimes.”

“I can see that.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing! Nothing at all. But I want to check anyway.”

“Then how the hell can it mean nothing?”

Grimes turned away from the monitor and looked at Lark. The big bald man looked back at him with watery eyes. Clearly the UV filters had worked about as well as Grimes had expected. “Look,” he replied, “I don’t mean anything by it. But word’s come down from the Imperium. One of the prisoners is due for Erasure. The Eraser will be arriving shortly to carry out the sentence.”

Unconsciously, Lark shivered. The Eraser had always given him the creeps. He’d only ever been present for one Erasure, and was eager to see another, but a part of him had often wished that he or Grimes would be allowed to carry out the sentence themselves. It would make things less boring. But rules were rules. 

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Grimes. “It would be a hell of a lot easier. But they don’t want us getting involved with the prisoners. Our job is life-support, that’s it. There’s a reason they don’t have names, you know.”

“So we’re just supposed to sit on our asses until the Eraser arrives.”

“That’s it. You’ve done this before, you know the drill. It’s frustrating and difficult and a waste of everyone’s time, but the Imperium does things this way for a reason.”

“Doesn’t mean I can’t complain about it.”

“Obviously.”

Lark wanted to say more, but it was clear that Grimes had had enough. He rolled his eyes and turned back to his panel. He initiated the morning blood test on the prisoners. Somewhere in the cell block, wall panels had opened up. Dextrous metallic arms had extended from within. They carried tiny blades. The newer prisoners still fought, but the longer-term tenants did not. The blades were invisible in the black of the cell; the only foreknowledge the prisoners had of their coming was the sound of the wall opening up. The blades slashed in the dark. The slow drip of blood. Staccato droplets became a pool, which was absorbed by the cell’s membranous floor. Reports began to flash on Lark’s screen. Lark resigned himself to another few hours in the chair.

When the call finally came, it pulled Lark out of a near-sleep. He spun in his chair with bleary eyes until he realized what the sound was; the communicator on the desk was beeping rapidly, high-pitched and insistent. Lark looked about, but there was no sign of Grimes. He swore softly, then pushed the button to accept the transmission.

A solemn voice, heavy with portent, spoke without asking: The Eraser will be there shortly. Please prepare for his arrival. The line closed.

Lark frowned. He pushed away the chill which seemed to be creeping into his bones.

“That was him?” Grimes had entered the room. He was closing up the belt on his pants. The man had chosen a remarkable time for a washroom break. 

“Yes,” said Lark. His mouth was dry.

“We better get ready then.”

Even as Grimes said this, something pinged on the monitor. A docking notification, along with full credentials. 

“Shit,” said Grimes. “I’ll approve the boarding, you run and get the gear. Quick!”

Lark nodded and raced through the station. Clean colour-coded lines led the way, but he already knew it. The drills played in his mind on repeat. Down the hall, past the mess. Past the door which led to the prison-wing airlock. Past the rec room. Through the galley. Into the cabin. He quickly stepped past the two occupied rooms, ignoring all of the empty ones. The station hadn’t been fully manned since Lark had worked there. He reached the far end of the cabin hall and laid his palm upon the reader. A soft chime told him that access was granted. The panel opened up, revealing the masks. He grabbed two, then closed the panel. He raced back through the ship again, but found the control bay empty. On to boarding, then. He took a left and swung round the corner, running his hands along the walls to keep balance. He was panting heavily when he reached Grimes, who waited just outside the door to the docking bay.

“Took long enough, didn’t you?”

Lark’s chest rose and fell. He hadn’t run like that in forever. “Fuck you.” Big inhale. Big exhale. “Take the mask.” He pressed the black bundle into Grimes’s chest. Then he rose. The mask went over his head, fitting to every pore on his face. The nanofibers around his eyes adapted to his face, allowing him to see out. The mask crept around his mouth, into his ears, his nostrils. It swallowed him. He inhaled deeply, and the mask’s oxygen-rich air flooded his lungs. It was cool and easy to breathe.

Across from him, Grimes had done the same. The other man looked back at him with the same death’s mask. His gaunt cheekbones seemed carved from the material.

“Seals tight?” Grimes asked. Lark gave him a thumbs up. Grimes nodded, then pressed the button to open the airlock. The men stepped inside. The airlock closed, and a faint humming could be heard. Lark was reminded of the noctorioles on Prosperity, who only sang at night. A vivid memory returned to him of their song outside his window as a boy, a balm to the oppressively humid nights in the fisheries. 

The opposite door opened, waking Lark from his reverie. Facing him in the docking bay was the Eraser and his retinue, one of the Judges. The Judge wore a mask of pure black, just as the station crew. It differed in one way: atop it was an ebony crest streaked with red, symbolizing the expansion of both the universe and the Imperium. The Eraser’s mask was not dissimilar from the station members, but the eyes were deeper. Lark swallowed nervously. The contours of the man’s skull could be easily seen. The man’s eyes had been removed.

Lark and Grimes snapped to attention.

You’re late. The Judge’s flat voice seemed to consider each of them in turn. The Eraser merely stood in place, the empty sockets boring into some point in the wall above them. The Eraser is getting anxious. Take us to the prisoners. Grimes nodded rapidly, wordlessly, then led them into the airlock. 

Even with the hssss that signalled they could proceed, the group did not take off their masks. It was all a part of the Erasure ritual. The crimes for which these people were held had been forgotten the moment they entered Cygnus Station and pushed into one of the Black Cells. All electronic signatures of their existence had been destroyed. Scanners had passed through their homes, their workplaces, removing any leftover fiber of their existence. The Erasure was a long and thorough process. Any family or friends or members of the public who sought to protest against it were reminded of their obligations to the Imperium and its laws. They soon forgot as well.

The small group passed to a final room. It bore no name, no placard to indicate its purpose. All members of Cygnus Station’s crew knew it already. This was their destination.

When they approached the door, the Judge raised his hand. The palm reader confirmed his identity, his authority. The Judge then made a sound in a malevolent octave. The Eraser raised his hand as well. Lark could see ancient scarring on the tips of the Eraser’s fingers. How did the machine know him? 

Lark never got an answer to his question. The door slid open. Inside, faint blue light coloured the room. The room was composed entirely of transparent panels, save for a single console. The Judge ushered the Eraser into the room, then gestured for the two crewmen to follow. The door shut behind them. The room was utterly quiet, a silence which seemed to ache with anticipation. Above them–or at least how “above” functioned in terms of the station’s orientation–the star continued to feed the abyss. Lark felt that, if he looked carefully, he might be able to see where space began to curve toward annihilation.

It is time. You. Bring up prisoner RF-09212032.

Lark felt sweat beading on his brow. The mask wasn’t able to wick it all away. He stepped up to the console and keyed in his entry code. He typed in the number provided by the Judge. It meant nothing to him. Each prisoner was assigned a number, to be changed every day. The person to whom this number applied had no idea that it was theirs. They had no idea that this was the last day of their existence.

Video of the Black Cell opened on the console. There was no light in the cell, of course. The cells were positioned to always face the black hole. They would orbit around it until the day of Erasure. For most, this alone was enough to drive them insane. The human mind cannot conceive of true nothingness. Even the darkest dark experienced is still simply the absence of light. Black holes are the annihilation of light. From what Grimes had told him, most prisoners didn’t last more than a week or two before they started raving. A few more weeks, and the anger turned to tears. After that, nothing; they were merely shells waiting for disposal.

Lark peered at the console when it opened. As there was no natural light, thermal radiation was used to track the prisoner. The person–male, perhaps–shifted. In doing so, Lark had a terrible realization. 

“That’s a child!” he blurted. “There’s a child in the Black Cells!”

LARK,” shouted Grimes, “Don’t–”

“What the hell did a kid do? No kid deserves this shit! It’s not right!” Spittle was starting to collect in the corners of his mask. Lark didn’t care. “What the hell did he do?! TELL ME!”

That will suffice. The Judge had turned toward Lark. Lark’s protests died in his mouth. Your empathy is human. But it has no place here. The records of this child’s crimes have been destroyed, as you well know. All memory of his existence is about to be Erased. In a moment, my . . . colleague will send him on his final voyage. Cygnus will claim him. His end will either be instant or eternal, depending on one’s understanding of relativity. In any event, it does not concern you, because this boy will never concern anyone again. The annihilation of matter is the final stage of the Erasure. He placed a surprisingly strong hand on Lark’s chest and pushed him back. Do not interfere. It will make no difference. He signalled for the Eraser to begin. The skull-faced man stepped forward and made a series of delicate motions on the console screen. A soft chime indicated success.

“I just wanna know what the kid did to deserve this,” whined Lark.

The Judge looked at him once more. Lark hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud. The Judge turned to him. Behind him, one of the Black Cells was raised from the station, ejected toward the black hole. Lark’s eyes followed it until it disappeared against the black of space.

The Judge’s voice was almost sympathetic. Would knowing make a difference?

After that, the rest of the ceremony was carried out without incident. The Judge and the Eraser did not stay any longer than their duties demanded. When they had left and the masks were off, Grimes and Lark did not speak to one another. Grimes retreated to his cabin, while Lark returned to his regular spot in the control bay. He flipped on the viewscreen.

This time, he pointed it away from the abyss and to the stars.

#2 – Istapparhund

The first bite of the icy wind gnawed at Drew’s cheek as he stepped out of the hotel into the bluing light. It felt as though the sun had only just risen. His watch told him that it was 2:30 in Spegeldalen, but he wouldn’t have known it by the way the sun hovered at the rim of the world. Brilliant streaks of orange lit out across the snow. The rays bore no heat with them, and now the dark sought to steal away what little comfort the light offered.

Drew pulled the packet of cigarettes out of his parka’s pocket, cupping his hand against the wind to light it. He flicked the match into the snow, then stepped around the corner of the building to the lee side, somewhat sheltered from the worst of the wind. Something howled in the distance. What kind of person would allow a dog to be out on a day like today? He dragged on the cigarette and shook his head. Probably the same kind of people that thought it’d be fun to set up a resort in the middle of fucking nowhere. He wiped his nose to prevent a pendulous string of snot from freezing. He supposed that the resort management wasn’t entirely to blame for him being here. Surely Marlene shared some of the responsibility, given that she had had the idea to come to Sweden instead of Ibiza for their winter holiday.

Baby, it’ll be so much fun! Look at the brochure. They have ice-skating trails through the forest, skiing, dog-sledding . . . private hot tubs in all the rooms. Drew could still hear the cadence of her voice as she listed this last point. He had almost been insulted when she had mentioned it; after all, it wasn’t his fault that it had been so long. Four months, when last Drew had counted. Long enough that it was painful, but not so long that it was time to call a lawyer.

Marlene had seemed genuinely excited, though, and so with that (and the other thing) in mind, Drew had dutifully nodded his head and agreed to the trip. Five weeks later, they had flown from London to Stockholm before climbing aboard a bus for a seven-hour drive north. When they had finally disembarked, it had been to a small bus station two miles from the chalet. One final taxi ride had brought them to their destination, the Spegeldalen Hotel, Resort, and Spa. 

The place itself was beautiful, of course. Marlene always had an eye for luxury. Drew hadn’t expected anything less, which was half the reason he had allowed her to book the trip in the first place. Still, the promise of comfort hadn’t stopped him from gasping with shock when he had stepped off the bus and into the cold dark. Man wasn’t meant to live in places like this, he figured, and he was prepared to stand by that if Marlene tried to fight him on it. He tried getting her attention during the taxi ride, but she had ignored him in favour of talking to the driver. Once they had arrived at the hotel, she’d immediately launched into conversation with the receptionist. 

Drew sighed and distracted himself by looking around the lobby. It was some kind of hyper-modern style, all white lines and smooth curves. Fires leaped and flickered in black fireplaces inset in the walls, lending the room a cozy feel, despite the stark architecture. Great golden lights hung above him. A restaurant at the other end of the room hummed with the bustle of other visitors, tired-looking folks who smiled and laughed with one another.

Maybe this isn’t so bad, Drew had thought. Maybe I should just put up with the cold. Making a decision, he turned back towards the desk and went to follow his wife.

Thinking back on it now, Drew wished he had said something then. It would have been easier. But nothing had gone quite as he intended; Marlene was an active woman who wanted to be out in the snow, skiing or skating. Drew would rather have stayed in the hotel room, getting drunk and sitting in the Jacuzzi. Maybe later he would have gone to the spa for a massage, depending on the prices. But he had no interest in going out in the snow any more than he had to, and he made sure that Marlene knew about it. She might have big plans for outdoor activities, but he would find his own path. He was sure that she’d come along in time. 

Drew shivered. The sun was past the horizon now, the cigarette nearly finished. He decided to have another in order to justify his being out there. He was in the middle of removing the packet when he was interrupted by a powerful gust of wind.  His hood was ripped off his head, the packet sent careening into the dark.

“Fuck!” he cried, chasing after it. There were no-smoking signs all over the resort. Who knew if they even had cigarettes for sale? He wasn’t sure if he’d ever seen a Swede smoking. His feet sank into the deep snow up to his calf. Drew could see a thin trail where the packet had skipped across the snow like a rock over a pond. It disappeared into the night. Howling could be heard again, a piercing cry that startled Drew in its proximity. A wolf? No, it has to be a dog. Wolves wouldn’t get that close to civilization. The sound of it was near enough that he reconsidered. Better safe than sorry. He turned to go inside.

The one good thing about the cold, Drew decided, is that it makes you appreciate what it is to be warm. Stepping inside the hotel again was akin to slipping into a hot bath without being wet. He shut the door behind him. The hotel’s hall was quiet, the pale sconces humming softly in their places. Nobody else was around. There were few guests at the resort at all, in fact; whether this was a consequence of the season or the weather, Drew wasn’t sure. All he knew is that it was still too many, for Marlene had done what she always did and befriended the first people that she came across. They were to have dinner that evening with her new friends, Sven and Hanne.

“Better hurry and get into something nice,” chirped Marlene as he entered the room. Drew rolled his eyes privately. She hadn’t even waited for him to take off his boots before barking orders at him. 

“Are you sure we need to go to this? Can’t we just order room service, stay in, watch a movie?”

“Andrew, we came all this way for the sake of a trip, not to watch movies.” She was fiddling with her earrings, looking at him only through the reflection in the mirror. “Sven and Hanne are perfectly lovely people. They said that the restaurant’s herring is out of this world. I want to try the herring. They want to eat it again. It’s no big deal to just go and eat some fish.”

“I don’t like fish that much. Maybe just fish and chips.”

“Then order fish and chips, I don’t care. Order a fucking steak. Whatever you want. Please just do this thing with me.”

“Alright, alright.” In truth, Drew had always planned on saying yes. No, he didn’t particularly want to eat with a couple of strangers, but he also didn’t want to sit in the room alone like a loser. 

“Thank you,” said Marlene. “This’ll be fun, I promise.”

“No problem.”

Once dressed, the couple walked together to the restaurant which Drew had spied during the check-in. Soft music played, some classical piece that Marlene probably knew, but Drew only heard as elevator music. A handsome blond couple stood in front of the maître d’. They smiled and waved to Drew and Marlene.

“Jesus, Mar, I didn’t realize we were having dinner with the Aryan Nation,” whispered Drew. 

“Welcome to Sweden, Drew. Lots of people have blond hair here. It doesn’t make them Nazis.”

“It’s called a joke.”

“I thought jokes were supposed to be funny?”

Drew opened his mouth to reply, but Marlene had already opened her arms for a hug. The woman, Hanne, pulled her close, and then Sven did the European cheek-kiss thing that Drew was still having a difficult time adjusting to. He proffered his hand awkwardly for a handshake with each of them, which they both accepted. 

“Hi, I’m Andrew, but you can call me Drew.”

“So nice to meet you,” said Sven. His accent was soft, his smile wide. “I’m Sven. This is my partner, Hanne.”

She smiled too. So many smiles. “Shall we eat?” she asked. “I’m starving.”

“Yes!” enthused Marlene. “I’m ready to try this herring you’ve been telling me about. I’ve been craving fish ever since I got here.”

Drew raised an eyebrow at this, but said nothing. Back home, Marlene hated fish. She’d even refuse to kiss him if he had eaten fish and chips with his friends until he’d brushed his teeth. Who was this woman?

“What about you?” asked Sven. “Are you ready to taste real Swedish cuisine?”

Drew forced a smile. “I suppose I am,” he said.

To its credit, the restaurant’s food was delicious. Even the herring Marlene had ordered did look good, though Drew wasn’t about to admit it. It was served on a bed of microgreens, with a thin glaze of some kind drizzled over it. He had watched her as she had eaten, only looking away to answer the occasional questions that Sven and Hanne tossed his way, but she never betrayed any sign of a grimace or gag to suggest she wasn’t enjoying her meal. This incensed Drew for reasons he couldn’t pinpoint. More infuriating yet was that the Swedish couple seemed far more interested in Marlene. This was often the case with new people, but Drew found that he could usually tune it out. Not this time.

“So what do you guys do around here when it’s this cold?” he asked.

“Stay inside, mostly,” replied Hanne. “Read books. Play board games. Watch TV. Don’t you do the same?”

Drew opened his mouth to reply, but Marlene got there first. “Drew likes a lot of those things, too, right baby?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess. I was kind of hoping to do something more outdoorsy, given that we’re on vacation in a winter wonderland and all.”

This time it was Marlene’s turn to raise her eyebrow. Drew flashed her a grin. Think on that, Mar.

“Have you been skiing yet?” asked Hanne. “The slopes are really nice here. Nothing too crazy after all, we’re still in the relatively low part of the country, but enough to make it worth the trip to the lift. Or maybe skating? Sven and I did the trail through the forest just last week. They maintain it the whole way through, it’s truly spectacular.” 

“I was thinking some snowshoeing. Maybe even tonight, if the weather clears.” Drew had no idea why he’d suggested that. He certainly wasn’t about to do it. Was he that desperate to annoy Marlene?

“Oh no,” said Sven, eyes wide. “You can’t do it tonight.”

Drew just about got up out of his chair to find a pair of snowshoes when Sven said that. “Why not? I bet the stars are beautiful. ”

There was silence for a moment. Then the couple looked at one another. Sven inclined his head towards Hanne, as if to say you go ahead. She nodded, took a long sip of her wine, and then said, “because of the Istapparhund.”

“The what?”

“Ees-topper-hoond?” asked Marlene. “What does that mean?” She reached for her purse, probably for the phrasebook that she’d used to read road signs and billboards on the bus ride up.

“You won’t find it in a book,” said Sven softly. “It’s kind of a local legend.” He looked from Marlene to Drew, then back again. “It’ll sound very silly, but it’s best to abide by these things. We are a superstitious lot in Spegeldalen.”

“But what does it mean?” asked Drew. Against his better intentions, his curiosity was piqued.

Sven looked to Hanne. “Your English is better than mine. How would you translate it?”

Hanne thought for a quick second. “Icicle dog would be the closest translation, I suppose.”

“Icicle dog,” repeated Marlene. “This is a local legend? Like the Loch Ness Monster?”

“Not quite like that,” said Sven. “The Loch Ness Monster, she’s more of a mystery than anything children might be afraid of. Lots of people claim to have seen the Istapparhund. When they talk about it, they don’t talk about it with the kind of excitement or awe you might expect from somebody who saw the Loch Ness Monster.”

“Yes,” said Hanne. “They always seem terrified. Scared out of their wits.”

“By the icicle dog,” said Drew flatly.

“I know it sounds very silly,” said Hanne. “But please take it very seriously. It may seem like a quaint local tradition, but we all are very careful all the same. We stay inside on the coldest nights, because that’s when the Istapparhund hunts. Usually it’s game like rabbits or sometimes bigger animals like a fox. But every once in a while, they find a person. Sadly, it’s most often a child who wanted to play outside or perhaps a homeless person who couldn’t find shelter.” Her voice shrank, barely to a whisper. “There was one last month. I heard the snow was so covered in blood that it had begun to melt before it froze again. They had to dig two feet down to find white.”

“Hanne, please,” said Sven. “There’s no need to trouble them with such things. They are enjoying their vacation.”

“Please, forgive me,” said Hanne. “I’m interested in local myths. That’s actually why we live here; I’m studying folklore at Malmö University, and part of my work concerns Swedish legends as well.”

“Are you telling me that there’s some kind of monster in the woods who kills children and it’s never made the news?” asked Marlene. She said it kindly, but her voice carried a tone of incredulity. 

“Please understand, this is not something that we are proud of. The local authorities put out warnings every winter, when the sun begins to set early. But we don’t advertise it in tourist areas because nobody goes out late anyway. If a death happens, it’s usually blamed on a bear or another homeless person. Tourism is very important to Spegeldalen, and they don’t want anything in the news that might drive people away.”

“This is a joke,” muttered Drew. Marlene is trying to get back at me somehow for smoking on the trip. She knew I would want to go outside before bed for another. She didn’t want me coming to bed stinking of smoke, so she cooked up this scheme with her new friends to keep me from doing it. Maybe next time, baby. And yet, even as he thought this, some atavistic part of his brain recollected the baying howl that he had heard earlier that evening.

“We know how it sounds,” said Sven. “But please, stay inside at night. If not for our sake, then for yours.”

Marlene opened her mouth, perhaps to ask more questions, but the waiter chose that moment to arrive with the bill. The conversation turned away from the Istapparhund, and each couple prepared to go to their rooms. They separated in the halls leading to opposite wings of the hotel, and Marlene and Drew walked back in a stony silence.

“What the hell was that?” Marlene finally asked.

“What was what?” 

“All that nonsense about snowshoeing. Since when do you want to go outdoors?”

“What can I say?” said Drew. “I was inspired.”

“Inspired to be a dick, maybe.”

“Come on, Mar. You’ve been messing with me just as much. I mean, all that about the ice dog or whatever? Please. You don’t really think I’m that gullible, do you?”

Marlene’s face blanched. “Drew, I really didn’t have anything to do with that. I was as surprised as you were when they brought it up.”

Drew nodded along. “I bet you were, babe. It’s okay, I’m not mad. I think we each need our jokes to remember why we love each other.”

“I’m being serious,” said Marlene. “I didn’t like that story, either. That detail about all the blood? That’s fucked up. Do you really think I could come up with that?”

“Maybe that was Hanne’s contribution, I don’t know. She seems like a natural storyteller.”

“Just don’t go for a smoke before bed, okay? I know you smoked earlier. I really don’t care. Just wait ‘til morning, please.”

“I didn’t smoke earlier.”

“I smelled it on you. It was super obvious, even with your cologne.”

“That was from the fires in the lobby.”

“Those are electric! Are you being deliberately dense?”

“No more than you, love.”

They had reached the room by this point. Marlene slid the key into the lock and then stormed in, kicking her shoes off. She went to the mini-fridge, muttering something under her breath. Drew’s imagination gave him a few ideas as to what that might be, but he didn’t ask. She pulled a short bottle of wine out of the door and then slammed it, glaring at him as she made her way to the bathroom. He then heard the click of the lock and the sound of the bath.

Drew decided he needed a break. He thought about turning on the TV, but watching a bunch of expensive movies with Swedish dubs and English subtitles didn’t appeal to him. He went to the closet and patted his jacket, mostly out of a nagging sense of curiosity. He was on the third pocket when he felt what he had hoped for; he reached inside and withdrew a single sad, flaccid cigarette. Hell yes, he thought. He peeked around the corner to be sure the bathroom door was still closed. The tap was still running, so she’d likely be in there for a while yet. He grabbed his coat and exited the room as quietly as he could.

The chill was almost shocking when he stepped outside, an iciness that seemed to invade parts of him that had never been cold before. The wind bit at the thin places on his body: his nose; his cheeks; his knuckles. It seemed to exist somehow inside his very bones. The little spark of flame on the tip of his match carried all the warmth in the world. He touched it to the tip of the cigarette, turning his body to shelter it from the storm. The orange ember lit his face with a soft and primeval light. 

He had just about finished when he heard the sound of crunching in the snow. He turned to see who was there, assuming it was another guest, but found himself at a loss for words.The tail of the cigarette fell soundlessly from his mouth, the wind whistling into his lungs as his throat clenched and unclenched in a vain attempt to scream.

Before him was a creature not unlike a wolf, except it was entirely unlike a wolf. Its body was composed entirely of translucent aqua-blue ice, sculpted perhaps by some dispassionate god. As the thing shifted and the pale halogen light over the hotel door caught it, Drew realized with another shock of horror that the ice was sharp. Jagged peaks and valleys thrusted out from the creature’s body, a nightmare of geometry, its very eyes two inky coal-black pebbles perched atop shards of glass which pivoted and turned on some unknowable axis. These eyes tracked Drew and he froze, all thought of the cold forgotten. 

I’m not so far from the door, he thought. Not so far at all. He slowly stretched his arm out–

–And was interrupted by an ear-splitting, keening howl, one which shook him to his core, turning his bones into water. The creature had split its jaw to the sky as it cried, and Drew had caught a glimpse of its teeth, rows and rows of squat icicles, inlaid upon one another like shark’s teeth. He felt a trickle of warmth down his leg, but it barely registered in his mind. Making a decision, he sprang into action, grabbing the door handle with all of his might, fumbling in his pocket for the key.

Two seconds later, he realized that he had left the key in the room.

Five seconds after that, a wall of pain unlike any he’d ever known hit his back. He was suddenly in the snow, his cheek shrieking as it was pressed and tossed against the powder. He felt strangely disconnected from his body. The light above began to turn dull and fade, white to grey to black.

As the Istapparhund began to feed, Drew’s last thought was the annoying certainty that Marlene had been right.

#1 – Controlled Burn

When it was first proposed, the idea wasn’t as controversial as you might expect. The decision was made in 2089 and carried out barely two years later.

The scientists had been right, of course. The rapid industrialization of the planet, followed by the aggressive expansion of the human species in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, had incited warming beyond what the planet could sustain. What little media coverage there had been through the first half of the twenty-first century had been dedicated to discussing how severe the problem might be. When Supertyphoon Mirinae struck the Indochinese peninsula in 2056, the reality was undeniable. Flooding from storm surges and rains, combined with rising sea levels, left much of Cambodia underwater. Images of the tallest spires of Angkor Wat cresting the floodwater circulated the globe. Seven Red Cross members were killed by submerged landmines during the following aid effort, grim punctuation to the price of delayed action.

For a few brief moments in the late 2050s and early 2060s, it appeared as though change might come. Petrol and oil reserves had begun to run dangerously low already, and so leaders around the globe rallied to switch to renewable resources. Fuel companies restructured entirely, leaving skeleton crews in the oil fields in order to refocus on green energy. It was perhaps the greatest global industrial effort in the world’s history, surpassing even that which followed the Second World War.

But it was not enough. Change was too slow. Drought raged in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the blighted rainforests swallowed by the desert. Seasonal monsoons in Asia became semi-annual floods. American and European farmland dried out, turning into desiccated dust bowls. Political interest faded as the public’s focus turned to survival. Savvy and cunning politicians seized on the moment, rising to power amidst a swell of popular support and desperation. Resources were divested elsewhere as countries shifted from a global effort to one of self-sufficiency. Half-completed dams, windmills, and solar farms laid derelict across much of the planet. Rolling power outages became more common as the rich hoarded energy in order to preserve the lives to which they had become accustomed. Extortionate rates only ensured greater grid stability for those who could afford it. All others were left to scrape out what meagre existence they could.

This brings us to the decision made on the afternoon of April 19, 2089. All voting members of the United Nations Security Council supported the motion. They did not consult non-permanent members. The plan was to be carried out two years later. The public would not be notified until a week prior to the event. This time-frame was selected so as to reduce panic and resistance.

The idea itself had been proposed by a group of scientists who worked for FutureGro, a conglomerate of energy companies that had formed in the late 2040s in order to consolidate around the remaining resources. The pitch was simple: the planet was swiftly running out of resources, while the environmental collapse only seemed to be accelerating. Any solution would need to resolve both of those problems, as failure to do so would only postpone the problem until feedback loops began the crisis anew. Once these determinations were made, scientists began exploring the options for swift environmental change. After the failed investments in green infrastructure, any solution which necessitated mass construction seemed impossible. Carbon-capture technology had been studied as well, but the technology was untested and the scale too great.

This left the scientists with a single option, which they presented to the necessary governments under a veil of total secrecy. Any leaks were quelled immediately, the parties discredited, the allegations denied. 

The plan was almost beautiful in its elegance: a series of co-ordinated pinpoint nuclear strikes across the globe to depopulate certain areas of the planet and trigger a nuclear winter. While the loss of life, culture, and biodiversity would be incalculable, the resulting cooling of the planet would allow nations to reset and rebuild. With the subsequent fall in demand, energy companies could then prioritize green technology that would allow future generations to enjoy clean, safe, and plentiful energy. The scientists expected some opposition to their plan, but the only question that was asked concerned the survival of the members in the room.

Once the launches were approved, all officially-sanctioned nuclear states worked in collaboration with one another to determine the best strike points.Nuclear scientists and climate engineers were tasked with figuring the best yield for each bomb, as well as how many strikes would be necessary to trigger the desired environmental change. 

When the results came in, the numbers were startling. Almost every single bomb in these nations’ arsenals would be required to achieve the desired effect. Major cities would need to be targeted, as well as swaths of wilderness so as to distribute the effects sufficiently to prevent environmental cascade. The estimated death toll stood at approximately six and a half billion souls, with higher concentrations in the Global South, where none of the nuclear states existed. In a show of equanimity, all parties agreed to cities within their own countries that could serve as targets as well. This was a consequence of geography as much as politics; three of the states were among the largest in the world, and as such they needed to allow strikes within their borders in order for the plan to work.

One week prior to the day the bombs would fall (hereafter called “Reset Day” or “R-Day”), an announcement was broadcast to every computer, television, cellphone, or appliance. It featured the Secretary-General of the United Nations informing the world in solemn terms of the plan to save the planet. He likened it to a controlled burn, a technique in forest management where fires were deliberately set so as to diminish the risk of future greater fires and promote new growth. He thanked the citizens of countries around the globe for their sacrifice. He pledged to ensure that they were honoured in the coming century, once the world had had an opportunity to rebuild. He then asked that they spend these remaining days in comfort and security with their loved ones. He encouraged those who might be angry to abstain from baser impulses in light of this news. He then thanked the citizens of the world once more before ending the broadcast.

The reaction was immediate. The media replayed the message endlessly. Newscasters would speak in sober tones to their audiences, asking them to refrain from violence. Others spoke of the news with an exaggerated swagger, telling their audiences that the time had come, and that the elites had finally cast the first stone. 

It is unclear whether or not the media reaction had anything to do with the surge of violence in the coming days. Not all of humanity took it this way, of course; it seems as though the vast majority of the planet’s citizens retreated into their homes, where they spent time with family and friends in their final days. Congregations swelled as others turned to religion. Celebrities, politicians, and billionaires retreated to islands and bunkers, safe points that had been circulated within the upper class. Less fortunate citizens took to the Internet to scold people about the importance of voting, suggesting that this might not have happened had the correct party been chosen in the previous year’s election. For a small but not insignificant minority, wanton violence was the path forward. What records exist suggest that riots, murders, and rapes spiked. Nobody came to stop it.

In the end, the bombs fell as scheduled. Six and a half billion people died. 

The plan itself worked, of course. The existence of this record proves as much. Enough ash was thrown into the atmosphere to trigger the nuclear winter that they had sought. It lasted for twelve years and cooled the planet to levels not seen since the birth of the Industrial Age.

When those who remained emerged from their enclaves, they found a world that was rich with opportunity. FutureGro and other energy companies took advantage of a ready populace and put them to work, building hydroelectric dams, solar panels, and wind farms. A new era in human history dawned. Cities were rebuilt, glittering monuments for the dead.

During his final days, some twenty years after R-Day, the Secretary General was asked about his fateful decision. The reporter wanted to know whether there was any part of him that regretted making the call.

The Secretary General looked at her with old, tired eyes, surprise apparent on his face.

“What the hell else were we supposed to do?”

Don’t Look Up and the Limits of Satire

Image courtesy of Netflix and Hyperobject Industries

In the new Netflix film, Don’t Look Up, a comet is headed towards earth. Scientists in the film say it is much like the Chicxulub asteroid, which is a bizarre way to communicate to audiences that this poses a threat akin to the the object that killed the dinosaurs. They then clarify that the asteroid is, indeed, a “planet-killer”, which makes one wonder why they even mentioned Chicxulub to begin with other than to load in some vaguely “sciencey” dialogue.

Regardless, the comet is headed towards earth with an almost one-hundred percent degree of certainty. Asteroid nomenclature matters little at that point. It is an existential threat to humanity. Our two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) take it to the White House, where, after many delays, they meet President Orlean (Meryl Streep), who promptly seizes on the margin of error as proof that there is no need to worry about the earth’s impending doom.

This is when the movie lost me.

But, before I talk about why it lost me, let’s talk a little about satire and how it should work.

Satire as a Medium

The film’s screenwriters, director Adam McKay (Stepbrothers, The Big Short, Vice) & David Sirota (a journalist and speechwriter for Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign) have spent the last week and a half celebrating their film’s immense success by complaining about critics who found fault with the film, suggesting that they are akin to climate deniers.

This is very annoying, and suggests that the filmmakers were perhaps more interested in making a didactic point about climate change than in telling a story. Satire is a difficult needle to thread. Don’t Look Up fails to balance itself. While I won’t pretend there is some rubric to producing 100% pure-grain distilled satire, I do think it’s incumbent upon the author to tell a narrative that occludes their point, at least to a degree. Otherwise you’re just writing an essay, or, in the case of Don’t Look Up, writing a film that’s about as subtle as Scary Movie.

Consider one of the most well-known satirical works ever, A Modest Proposal, by Jonathan Swift. In this piece, Swift proposes that impoverished Irish families sell their infants for meat, claiming it will address hunger, poverty, and the “number of Papists, with whom we are yearly overrun”. Swift writes here in the mode of Juvenalian satire, which is typically darkly ironic, scornful, or nihilistic. While other types of satire exist, the modern conception of satire seems largely to draw from this paradigm. 

The key thing about this piece is that it never tips its hand once. It never winks to the audience, trying to bring them in on the joke. It is entirely straight-faced and trusts that knowing readers will understand that Swift is not serious. Don’t Look Up has no such faith in its audience, and instead presents to its audience the kind of problems that climate activists face, changes them to relate to a comet, then presents them wholesale, with a vaguely smug tone to accompany it. 

At no point are we meant to take President Orlean or her cadre of sycophants seriously. When her Chief of Staff/son (Jonah Hill, carrying the film on his back) argues with our intrepid scientists, it is done from such an obviously wrong-headed view that no audience could possibly believe it as being from a real person. I’m sure the filmmakers would say that that’s just how insane it is in real life. This is fundamentally untrue, as I will discuss later.

Similarly, Mark Rylance’s tech billionaire, who appears to be some strange combination of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg, is positioned as the true actor behind the government’s inaction. This depiction is also problematic, if less so than that of the politicians. The problem with this character again stems from a lack of believability. If the audience can do nothing but laugh at the object of satire, that’s not satire at all – that’s just telling a joke.

And jokes are fine! Obviously humour is subjective, and others may have got more mileage from the film’s humour, but I think it’s telling that the best joke (an aside from Jonah Hill about dropping molly) had no satirical intent at all. If the film had been marketed more as an outright comedy than a incisive satire, maybe I would have been less annoyed with it. But it chose the latter path, and so I feel compelled to point out the specific ways in which it fails to accurately satirize climate inaction.

SATIRICAL FAILINGS

When criticizing the satirical intent of Don’t Look Up, it’s important to remember that both McKay and Sirota have specifically said that the film is about climate change. While I feel this is obvious, I suspect some might read it in the modern moment to be about the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and so might further miss the point. With that in mind, here’s some of the ways in which the satire fails:

The film portrays the government as hapless and ignorant to the comet’s threat

“They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.”

Wrong. They’re exactly smart enough.

A lot of political oxygen is wasted on debates over the existence of climate change as an existential threat to our species. People speak about climate change in terms of “belief”, as if the Earth’s observable climate is somehow akin to faith. Activists will suggest that politicians or members of the broader are either too ignorant or too uneducated to grasp that yes, there is observable warming taking place on our planet, and that this warming is beginning to impact weather patterns (hurricanes, tornado outbreaks, heat waves, etc) across the globe.

This is the first and biggest myth about climate change, and it’s a sign of how well the denialists have reframed the debate. Outside of the true idealogues, most politicians are smart enough to read a scientific report and understand it. People like Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell are not so blindly stupid that they can’t understand what they are told. They simply choose to read that information, then pretend that it’s not real.

This has been going on since climate change (then global warming) was first identified as a problem. In the 1980s, petrol companies Shell and Exxon both identified the existential threat of climate change, then ignored it. This is not a mystery to anybody with any ability to read the data. Denialism should not be mistaken with a kind of “climate atheism”. As Naomi Klein writes in her 2014 book This Changes Everything:

To those gathered here at the Heartland [Institute] Conference, climate change is a threat of a different sort. It isn’t about the political preferences of Republicans versus Democrats; it’s about the physical boundaries of the atmosphere and ocean. If the dire projections coming out of the IPCC are left unchallenged, and business as usual is indeed driving us straight toward civilization-threatening tipping points, then the implications are obvious: the ideological crusade incubated in think tanks like Heartland, Cato, and Heritage will have come to a screeching halt. Nor have the various attempts to soft-pedal climate actions as compatible with market logic (carbon trading, carbon offsets, monetizing nature’s “services”) fooled these true believers one bit. They know very well that ours is a global economy created by, and fully reliant upon, the burning of fossil fuels and that a dependency that foundational cannot be changed with a few gentle market mechanisms . . . their deep fear that if the free market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if allowed to continue unchecked, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught. With stakes like these, clearly greed is not so very good after all. And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time–whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether their task can be left to the magic of the market.

(Klein, 39-40)

As Klein says, acknowledgement of climate change’s impact is existential for the capitalist project. It is not a matter of whether they are too stupid to do so. They are simply dedicated to their own survival. Portraying the bad actors in Don’t Look Up as too stupid fundamentally elides this point. After forty years of deliberate climate denialism, pretending it’s still a matter of intelligence only perpetuates this problem.

The film portrays a public unconcerned with the comet

Another case of assigning blame in the wrong place, but in a more annoying and boring way. Yes, we live in a culture obsessed with celebrity and pop culture. Yes, a lot of our media exists in shallow, banal soundbites. But to pretend that the public is somehow wrong or culpable is to shift the blame from the people who are; approximately two-thirds of the American public believe that climate change is a reality, caused by human activity, and another 60 percent, including 36 percent of self-identified Republicans, support broad climate action (the “Green New Deal”) to combat it.

The idea of an ignorant public obsessed with all the wrong things is fundamentally wrongheaded, and it assigns blame where none exists. Instead, it comes across as judgmental and elitist. People deserve the opportunity to chase oblivion, however they see fit. It does not mean they’re unconcerned with the world around them. It simply means that they need to find whatever joy they can. It does not make them worse citizens to enjoy lowbrow entertainment, nor does it mean that they cannot support the causes that matter.

There’s also just a certain level of Sideshow Bob-esque irony in using a star-studded film to draw attention to an issue while simultaneously decrying the public’s obsessions with celebrity.

Rylance’s billionaire character excuses the real culprits

Midway through the film, Rylance’s billionaire character, Peter Isherwell, is able to successfully exert enough political influence to convince President Orlean to redirect an Armageddon-style mission to destroy the comet in favour of a more elaborate mission to break up the comet and return the pieces to Earth for the purpose of harvesting its rare-earth minerals. This is one of the most salient, if unsubtle, moments of the film, serving as an allegory for the political influence exerted by the billionaire class; I’m reminded of Elon Musk’s “we’ll coup whoever we want” tweet in the wake of the 2020 Bolivian coup – no doubt Musk was thinking of all the lithium a market-friendly government would provide him.

Image

Still, I can’t help but feel like this was another softball, designed to synch up better with the film’s lame complaints about the public’s focus on all of the wrong things. Yes, we live in a world where our lives are driven by billionaires, but the tech billionaires are not explicitly the ones driving climate change. Just 100 companies are responsible for the vast majority of emissions since the 1980s. While billionaires like Isherwell are undoubtedly part of the problem, making him the sole focus lets the petrol companies off of the hook.

Closing Thoughts

I am not a climate denialist, despite my critique of the film. I think that climate change represents the single greatest threat to humanity that exists today because the solutions exist directly in opposition to capital. 

David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming depicts the future we are hurtling towards with a naked bleak honesty. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything emphasizes the responsibility of capital for bringing us to this brink. Many other books, articles, and films have been created with the single-minded goal of confronting this crisis. In the wake of all of this, it’s hard to view Don’t Look Up as anything more than a wrong-headed and blunt approach that seems designed only to preach to the choir, with little substance when it comes to the true problems.

Satire is difficult to pull off. I think there’s a separate conversation to be had about the limits of art to affect change at all; can you think of a piece of art that brought about political change? I can’t. Better satirical films like Sorry to Bother You (on labour) or Dr. Strangelove (on nuclear war) are much more affecting, but neither of them can really be credited as having made a difference, politically speaking. Advocates will claim that a work like this “raises awareness,” as if any more awareness needs to be raised about the threat of climate change. 

The last scenes of the film features politicians and billionaires fleeing the Earth in a ship bound for another planet. They are cryogenically frozen so that they might be able to start again, even as they leave the devastated Earth behind. Climate change isn’t a comet. The Earth will not be totally destroyed. Parts of the planet will still be temperate and lush, while others will suffer from famine, drought, and violent weather. The rich and powerful won’t need to leave the planet; they’ll just carve out a section for themselves so that they can continue holding court. This is perhaps the most effective scene of the film, but it comes far too late. It doesn’t land as it should because the targets were so scattershot to begin with.

Blaming the public for the actions of the powerful is not satire, nor is it effective. The solutions to climate change will come through solidarity, not smug moralizing. Don’t Look Up only serves to prevent this by assigning blame in all of the wrong places.

Trevor Moore and the best of WKUK

Image by the Whitest Kids U’ Know via wkukplus.com

For the last couple of days, I’ve found myself grappling with the death of Trevor Moore, a comedian and co-founder of the Whitest Kids U’ Know, a sketch-comedy troupe that had a show on IFC in the late oughts. It’s a strange feeling, one that differs from other celebrity deaths. I don’t think I’ve felt one this profoundly since Robin Williams’s passing, and even that was different; Williams was a capital-S star, while Trevor and the rest of the WKUK lived in a liminal space in between stardom and indie successes. 

There was a quality to their work that made it feel like they were some friends of friends you knew who had made it big, and something about their camaraderie drew you in. To watch their show was to feel like you’d been invited to hang out with some of the funniest guys you knew, the kind of guys who didn’t let success change their relationship with their friends nor mock you at your own lame attempts to be as funny as them.

The skits themselves avoid easy classification. They eschewed topicality and rarely aimed for satire, instead honing in on the absurd. While other actors were used, most of the characters, children and women included, were played by a member of the troupe. Part of the fun of an episode of the show was that each sketch would be totally different from the next–save for the last season, where the back-half of each episode was taken up by a multi-part film called The Civil War on Drugs

In recent years, I had fallen away from their work; I discovered them in my freshman year of university and quickly became a fan, but their show ended soon after that and I foolishly assumed that they were done. I feel now like I missed out on a lot. Trevor and the others did a lot of solo work following the end of the show. I didn’t listen to any of it, which I now regret. They began a Twitch stream in order to help fundraise for their next film, Mars (you can donate here), and had recently finished a stream when Trevor passed.

The last time I felt this way was when I discovered the Tragically Hip following their farewell tour (an embarrassing admission for a Canadian), but before Gord Downie’s passing. But that, too, was different. There was a nation behind the band. The WKUK were the kind of group whose existence was passed around between friends in dorm rooms and basements, forging bonds not dissimilar from those that brought the troupe together in the beginning.

The work is still there, of course. In the coming days, I’ll be listening to Trevor’s solo work in an attempt to make up for lost time. For anybody who might want to get started, I’ve listed ten of my favourite sketches below. The episodes are all on YouTube on the official WKUK channel

My sincere hope is that the skits below demonstrate Trevor’s enthusiasm and passion for comedy. His comedic persona is an endearing blend of guileless and acerbic, and I cannot think of anyone else like him.

May he rest in peace.


Below are some of my favourite sketches that prominently feature Trevor. It should go without saying that the show is for adults, so don’t watch it at work or at church or something. There’s no real order to these, and I’m not going to write anything further. Apologies in advance for the varying levels of video quality — 2008 was a rough time for all of us.

1 ) Lincoln

2) Cat Hunting

3) Dinosaur Rap

4) Classroom


5) Saturday

6) Gallon of PCP

7) Slow Jerk

8) Grapist

9) Illegal to Say

10) Opposite Day

And, as a bonus, Kitty History, which has been stuck in my head since the moment I listened to it.

The Last Gardener

[Begin log]

April 9th, 2437

I’m an endling. The endling, I suppose. 

An endling is the last living member of a species. 

It’s a word that wasn’t used much, but then it started cropping up a lot more. I think it came into common parlance around the turn of the century, when the storms got real bad. I was still young then, but I remember the way that the skies seemed to rage. Like a dam fit to burst. Sometimes it did, and rain and hail would streak down to whomever dared witness this final Godly wrath. 

That wasn’t what killed us, but it was a part of what brought us to the edge.

Now there’s just me. The endling of humanity.

It’s a dubious honour.

April 10th, 2437

I suppose I should properly introduce myself to anyone who might read this one day. Or hear it, considering I’m dictating some of it. I imagine even those faint waves are broadcasting to the universe. 

My name is Dr. Marvin Weyburn. Well, you can probably just call me Marvin. My speciality is biology, which matters only a little. My title matters even less. It stopped mattering a long time ago. Even names, I suppose, mean nothing now. 

Recording this wasn’t initially my plan. It was meant to be a log of daily tasks; checking the capsule doors to see if the seals still worked, preparing meals in advance, taking time on the treadmill to keep my bone mass stable. You know, in case I actually made landfall.

But then Exodus failed. Their last communication came in a burst of static and a streak of light some two hundred days ago. I thought I heard a scream, but maybe that was just me anthropomorphizing the shouts of a computer. 

I hope it was.

After that, I knew I was the last. And so I keep this log, in the hope that it all might matter one day.

April 12th, 2437

I considered abandoning my mission for a while, but there was nowhere else to go.

The Venusian colony was gone long before Earth, and even the icebreakers of Europa went dark about a year back. Not that I’d trust those guys to save me from extinction, especially once the ice melted.

When the funding for Genesis came, I don’t think they knew exactly where it would be sent. They just needed a curator. Someone to manage it. A gardener, if you will. 

It wasn’t supposed to be me. Lucy was supposed to do it. 

Ah. I suppose I haven’t mentioned Lucy before.

It’s. . . I can’t right now. It’s not the time. I’ll save it for when I need to say it.

Signing off.

April 19th, 2437

It would have been my cat’s birthday today.

I know, that’s a strange thought. After all that’s happened, why care about that? 

It’s a valid question. Another question might be: after all that’s happened, what else is there to care about? Equally valid, I think.

Anyway, my cat’s dead. I put her down before the atmosphere burst. The radiation would have done for her quick, and the UNSA didn’t seem interested in pouring funding into cat-sized radiation suits. 

I know, I know: What the hell other point was there in paying taxes?

Maybe after all that we’ve lost—all that I’ve lost—there isn’t much point in mourning a cat. 

But I loved her, dammit. So I mourn her with all the rest.

April 30th, 2437

There was an issue with one of the solar sails today. I can’t get out and do a spacewalk. Genesis has a door, but its airlock is fairly rudimentary and isn’t meant for space EVAs. 

I suppose I should go over what Genesis looks like, in case the schematics aren’t clear or salvageable when this is all over. 

Picture a long tube, like a cylinder. At either end are viewports, but they are also spotted throughout, like portholes in a submarine. 

Along the length of the tube, which is only about fifteen metres, are compartments with all the scientific equipment one could want for a voyage like this. It’s spread out for redundancy purposes; if something were to go wrong at any point—whether it be power-related or some other disaster—it’s good to have some distance. 

Outside, there are four solar sails, erupting from either end of the tube. They’re utterly massive, and they have to be; in order to carry Genesis away from the sun, they need to be large enough to collect the sun’s light and the pressure it emits. Yet, they also need to be light enough so as not to limit the speed of the vessel. I don’t know how they did it, but the UNSA managed to create graphene layers that were only millimetres thick, coating them with some sort of ultra-light alloy in order to protect them.

The good news is that the solar sail works. I’m currently shooting away from the sun at dozens of kilometres a second. Awfully handy when it comes to getting somewhere in a hurry, but space is still huge. It took a few hundred days to cross Mars’ orbit. That was years ago. Now, I’m somewhere in the outer planets, between Jupiter and Saturn. 

The bad news isn’t the speed. I’m in no rush. I’m just hoping for a chance. 

The bad news is that the material is incredibly fragile. Any loose space debris can puncture it. Provided it’s not anything obscenely large, the damage should be easily patchable. . . If I could get to it. But since I can’t, I just have to accept the reduction in speed, and hope that it doesn’t delay me too much. 

It could be worse, I suppose. It could have been a big rock. There are a few out here, but there’s little chance of running across those. Despite what the movies might tell you, asteroids don’t cluster together unless there’s some kind of gravitational anomaly. If you stood on an asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, you might be lucky to see another one in your entire life. 

I know. Pretty neat. And it means that I should be fine.

Facts may be reassuring, but they’re awfully lonely, too.

May 7th, 2437

One thing they drill into you during training is that space travel is awfully boring. Travelling on roads is one thing; you have a frame of reference, as it it accedes or recedes into the distance, you know that you’re moving. You see the road, or trees, or landmarks or whatever as they whiz past. You don’t have that in space. When the distances are so impossibly large, it feels like you’re not moving at all. 

When your only frame of reference are bright white points in the sky that are so unfathomably far that our ancestors thought they were fixed in the roof of the cosmos, it makes for a pretty slow trip. 

The good engineers at UNSA thought of this, and loaded a culture’s worth of film, games, and other media onto Genesis. It was kind of them, but I don’t find myself that interested. Something about being alone for the rest of my life makes spending it watching movies saddening.

I think it’s the people. Movie-watching is social; people go in groups, even if they don’t speak. People go on first dates to dinner and a movie, and it’s not just so they can get handsy in the dark. They go because they want to share in something that moves them, that brings them joy, or that makes them feel safe. I don’t have anyone to share with, and so the screen stays off most days. I think it’s better that way.

There are a lot of stars to count.

May 9th, 2437

I thought about amending my previous entry, but considering that this is meant to be a record for whomever comes after, it might be worth preserving it as is. 

I made a mistake when I said that space travel is boring. 

I mean, it is undoubtedly boring. Once you’re past the first launch and you see the grey trail of the Earth’s moon disappearing behind you, it slows down real quick. There’s a shot of loneliness, but once that fades, you’re left with an emptiness, punctuated only by some of the grandest sights you’ll ever see. 

I didn’t pass by Mars on my journey. It was on the other side of the sun from me. I wouldn’t have liked it anyway; it was beginning to slowly roast by the time I crossed the Martian orbit. I heard it was beautiful, though. The carbon-ice caps at each of the poles, the ruddy-red of the soil. Even its great scar, Valles Marineris, spoke to the deep history of a tormented world. 

I could be wrong, though. Maybe it wasn’t beauty that humanity saw in Mars. Maybe it was like seeing an old neighbour on the last farewell drive around your neighbourhood. The first and last marker of home. 

 The only places to touch your feet to the ground beyond Mars are rocky moons and failed dwarf worlds. Leaving without saying goodbye was hard, especially because I knew what was in store for Mars.

4,000,000 people lived on the Martian colony. Most of them lived in Sojourner, but there were scattered colonies across the flat northern hemisphere. Great wind-breaking shields protected these cities from the rusty storms that raced across that world. Terraforming had helped settle them to some degree, but there were still tempests that could rage for months. 

It was a different storm that destroyed Mars. After the seeding of the atmosphere in the late 21st century, Mars had finally begun to stabilize. The paper-thin atmosphere of carbon-dioxide had been replaced with a heavier layer of nitrogen and other precious, life-giving gases. It wasn’t quite breathable, but soon it would be home. Or would have been, anyway; the cloud layer had peeled away like shed skin in the path of the cosmic storm. 

I think it happened quickly, at least. I hope it did. I knew some people who lived there. 

But they were dead now, and so was Mars. 

May 24th, 2437

I woke up this morning and felt very alone.

I sat there in the bed for a while, watching the cold grey ceiling of the pod above me. A distant whirring noise saved me from the terror of absolute silence. I don’t know how long I laid there for. I tried to slow my breathing, but that did me no good. I never had the patience for anything like that. I cracked my knuckles, a sound like split wood in the gloomy quiet of the Genesis capsule. Eventually I got up and checked all of the day’s numbers. This took me four minutes, tops. 

Then I stopped, wondering what came next.

Another day begun.

July 1st, 2437.

Haven’t written in a little while, I know. It’s been a hard month. I just haven’t known what to do with myself.

What did people used to do when they wanted to pass the time? I know some would watch movies, play games. They might work on a personal skill, something they’ve always wanted to accomplish. Some people may have been content to spend their post-work evenings waiting to die, but I never was very good at that. I always had to be working on something. This led to a lot of half-finished projects.

I could tell you the three most common chords on the guitar and how to play them. I could draw a near-perfect cube, maybe even shade it. I could even tell you my name in Spanish. 

I guess it turns out that spending my whole life trying to be good at something just led to me not being very good at anything. There’s a certain irony there, I suppose. 

For me, it doesn’t end there. What’s the point in learning a new skill if you’re not going to have the time to become a master, or if no one else will be around to witness it? What’s the point in learning a new skill when you know you’re going to die? When people found out they were going to die back home, they wouldn’t spend their remaining days watching movies. They would do. 

But I can’t. I just have to wait, watching these impassive stars keep on shining. 

This journal might be all I have. 

It’s the closest thing there is to talking to someone.

July 2nd, 2437

I’ve tried counting the stars again lately. 

It was something Lucy and I used to do. Even as the sun began to grow and the days became hotter and longer, we would find time to retreat to the field behind the observatory, where the night sky was clearest. We’d lie down, spreading a blanket. I still remember the way it felt beneath my hand as I threw it open. I remember the feeling of her taking my hand and then me holding her close as we watched those unblinking specks of light shine through a cold and black universe. 

Watching stars is a test of patience. It takes time for your eyes to adjust to the night and to the light above. Once it does, it appears as though the sky itself is heavy with the weight of so much brilliance. 

When those moments came, we started playing the game. We’d start counting the stars, seeing how many we could rack up. Trying not to count the same one twice. Invariably, there was an argument. There were only so many stars we could see, and we eventually became convinced the other person had double-counted. It didn’t matter to me, though, and not just because I always won.

It was a silly game, in truth. It’s amazing how weak the human eye really is. To try to quantify the number of stars requires the use of absurd, made-up sounding numbers like “sextillion.” We might be able to see ten thousand of those, a fraction of that total, one that requires more zeroes than I’m willing to write. All of those are located within the Milky Way. We can’t see anything outside our own universe with our naked eyes. 

It didn’t matter, though. There was enough to go around. A single galaxy might carry hundreds of billions of stars. An unimaginable number.

I’d count them all for her if I could.

July 4th, 2437

I checked the monitors today, for the first time in a while. I’ve found that it’s become easy to let things slide. One of the benefits of my position is not having a boss to tell you to get back to work. 

It seems as though I’m closer to Saturn than I realized.

Four years passes very quickly when you know you’re going to die at the end of them.

I’ve seen it through the viewports, of course. Gas giants like Saturn have the tendency to be awfully reflective. Having giant ice rings definitely increases its albedo too. 

Jupiter always keeps me up, but I try to block it out with the shading built into the viewports. They were made for the sun, but they helped with Jupiter, which has only gotten brighter after all of this.

 Saturn was always there, though. Like a beacon in the black. I hadn’t noticed it growing bigger before now, but it almost seems alarmingly close.

I’m still speaking in space-distance, of course. It’ll be another couple of months before I arrive. Another couple of months in Genesis

Don’t blame me if I’m not excited.

July 7th, 2437

Sometimes when I watch the stars, I think of Exodus, and of that last scream of static over the coms. 

I don’t know exactly what happened to it, of course. I have ideas. It could have been a cloud of particulate debris, just dense enough to tear through Exodus’ hull, shredding it in the process. Maybe there was a malfunction, some flaw in the design that led to its disintegration. In the early days of spaceflight, pieces of loose foam had led to catastrophe, a danger that is just as present even now. It could even have been a bomb, smuggled aboard by some religious fanatic. There were a lot of those in the final days, people who turned to their god or gods as the end approached. Maybe someone worked to hasten it, or maybe they just saw Exodus as defiant. 

In the end, they were right. Exodus had been envisioned as an ark, a vessel crafted to escape annihilation. It had been plan A. 

I was Plan B, and not a very good one at that. Even if I succeeded, no one would ever know. 

It’s a grim prospect. 

It’s also the only plan left.

July 17th, 2437

Another difficult set of days. Saturn grows ever closer, but I know it’s still a month and a bit away. There’s a long way to go yet. 

It’s my birthday today. I’ll be thirty-eight years old, and as old as I’ll ever be. The collective human life expectancy hasn’t been this low in millennia. I decided to celebrate with cake.

It took me a while to find it in the cooler. I had to move the vials out of the way, but it was still there. Lucy had made sure that there was enough to last me the trip. I pulled the bag out and dumped it all in the blender. Poured in some freeze-dried milk, and mixed it with water. I suppose even milk is about to run out. The blender whirred and it occurred to me, just for the briefest moment, how much of my final days were spent waiting. Waiting for the blender, waiting for the cooling cycles to run, waiting for the stars to come closer. Then I realized that maybe that wasn’t all that different from what had come before.

When the blender finished, I poured it all into a sippy cup. Subtle centripetal forces keep me and everything else locked to the floor, but I didn’t feel as though a proper glass was worth the risk. 

I took the sippy cup to the control console, and set it aside for a moment. I slid a pack of cigars out from underneath. They were old, but were almost as fresh as the day they were rolled. The brass at the UNSA would have thrown a fit if they knew, but they were all dead and I was soon to be, so I decided it was worth defying the regulations. I flipped off the smoke alarm on the console, then sat in the chair and watched the stars scroll imperceptibly by. 

I drank my milkshake. It tasted like birthday cake. I think there might even have been sprinkles in the mix, but the blender had got all of them. I puffed on the cigar. It was good.

July 18th, 2437.

With my destination nearing, it’s hard for me not to be bitter about how I ended up here. 

It’s one thing to anticipate death; to know that the world is ending and that you’ll end with it. It’s a far different trauma to watch the world end, to know that your end will come yet after. 

It wasn’t supposed to be me. It was supposed to be Lucy. 

We had agreed on it together. As funding was diverted to the Genesis project, the one-in-a-million failsafe to Exodus, we agreed that she would handle the loneliness better, the tedium. That she would be able to say good-bye better. 

We struggled for a long time, knowing that Genesis couldn’t accommodate the two of us. Solars sails work best when the vessel is as light as possible, and we were short on time. Doubling the crew meant doubling the payload. So we decided that she should go. 

She was smarter than me, knew more of the science than me. Was more cautious than me.

[Records indicate that writing ceased for approximately six minutes. Reason unknown.]

But then she got sick. She got sick and was told that she would not survive long enough to see out the voyage. So it fell to me, the last gardener. 

That was a hard night, when we decided. At first, I wanted to stay with her. I wanted to stay home and watch the world end together. I wanted to face oblivion with her, but she wouldn’t let me. She was level-headed where I was not. She knew that the mission was more important. 

I didn’t even try to argue that someone else could do it. We both knew that it wasn’t true. Biology and botany and xeno-metereology were just a few of the skills required for the mission, and they were in short supply. It had to be me. 

Exodus had launched three weeks prior. Episilon Eridani is a star system less than a dozen light years from here. Construction had started earlier, in space where gravity wouldn’t threaten the solar sails as it would planet-side. The crew was all very young. Ten and twelve years. They would grow up together as family. Each understood the burden they carried. It would still be the better part of fifty years before it made it to Epsilon Eridani. There was a planet there that we believed to be Earth-like. 

I know what we’ve done. It was the best chance we had, and I’d do it again if I had to.

You can’t know how desperate we were. 

[Another break. Records indicate that much was deleted.]

The day of the Genesis launch was stormy, with the skies roiling like wracked seawater, the stuff of sailor’s nightmares. I, a sailor of a different breed, was about to leave on his maiden voyage. 

She met me at the mountaintop that day. The techs gave us a minute, or maybe it was several. I just know that it wasn’t long enough. 

I still remember the way she embraced me. I can’t describe it, not truly. I’m not a poet or anything, and besides, I don’t know if they could describe it either. I believe that all of us know that feeling—the feeling of saying good-bye to someone we love, knowing that it is the last time. 

We held each other for a long time on that mountaintop. She spoke to me, and I her, but those words are for us alone.  

I love you, Lucy. Always will.

August 13th, 2437

I’ve reached Saturn. It fills the screen and seems to overpower my senses. Looking at it for too long leaves me tired. 

At the vector I’m approaching, it appears tipped on its side, the great rings arcing high around it. Having something to see after all of this time inspires me. Even though I know the end is close, it gives me the strength to carry on, to do what must be done.

I need to make a few revolutions of Saturn before I reach Titan. Luckily, Saturn’s largest moon lies well outside its rings, leaving me a great deal of space. I don’t want to mess up Genesis more than I already have. This ship is the last chance we’ve got.

August 15th, 2437

I went through the ship today, gathering everything I would need for the end. Even the vials.

I don’t know why I kept them. Maybe it’s just a mislaid sense of duty. They can’t be salvaged, I knew that from the moment I saw the broken seal on the cooler.

At least, I hope it was broken. I hope it was broken because that means that the extinction of the human race was not my fault. That it wasn’t carelessness that brought us to this end. 

I’ve replayed finding the door ajar every moment since. 

Remember the deepest, most abjectly horrific feeling you’ve ever encountered. The moment when your stomach seems to plummet, when your heart seems to stop. The feeling of wanting to go back. The hope, however futile, that it is, somehow, a dream. Maybe it’s the moment when you found out your partner has been having an affair. Maybe it’s the feeling of committing a crime by accident. 

I once read about a woman who accidentally killed a child. The child ran in front of her vehicle. There was no fault to her at all. But it reshapes your life, your psychology. You can’t carry on– not as the person you were before. 

That’s nothing compared to what I’ve done. 

I hold a vial in my hand now. We carried so much hope in them, and now they’re useless. I don’t know why I’m keeping them, opaque tubes that bear the seeds of humankind. All kinds of people, dead once more. 

Because of me. 

August 24st, 2437

Only a few days until Titan.

I’m scared, I’ll admit it. It’s one thing to go into the grave, another to know you’re turning the lights off on the way out. 

I don’t know what comes next. I was never the religious type. Most weren’t, at the end. The decline in religiosity that marked the new millennium carried on through the twenty-fifth century.  

Some turned back to it. I think I initially dismissed them as scared, as wanting to believe that they wouldn’t be travelling into some great dark. We spend all of our lives existing, so much so that the thought of not existing is inconceivable. 

I get it now. When faced with all of that, I understand the urge to pray. Not just for fear, but also for hope.

I pray out of hope that all of this matters one day.

August 26th, 2437

Titan.

It looks almost featureless from here. The only moon in the Solar System with an atmosphere, it represents our best hope. It was close enough that someone could make it in a light craft, and it bore the potential to carry us forward. To start over. 

The descent in the atmosphere might be rough. I can’t breathe it. It’s mostly nitrogen, too rich for the Earthborn. Even though I expect it’s warmed up some, it’ll still be quite cold on the surface. For now, anyway. 

I need to go. I need to buckle-up and get ready for entry. I’m trying not to think about what walking on the surface of a world will feel like after all of this time. 

It might just hurt. I took my supplements, did my exercises, and yet I know I’ve lost bone density. Gravity won’t be as strong as it would be back home, but it will still hurt.

I don’t care anymore.

August 27th, 2437.

[Final Log]

I landed on the surface of Titan. 

Entry went well, for the most part. The solar sails detached correctly, and what didn’t burn up in the atmosphere fell away from me as I descended. Genesis‘s chute almost didn’t deploy, which caused me no end of panic. I didn’t come all this way to die in a crash. 

In the end, it fired correctly, and carried me to a berth on the edge of a cliff. In the valley below is a dark lake, likely of methane. The surface is totally placid, undisturbed by any kind of life. Titan itself is mostly smooth, protected from debris by the atmosphere, and shaped by cryo-volcanoes of ice-methane. 

I look around the capsule one last time before I go. I knew this was a one-way trip, yet I still find myself reluctant to acknowledge that I’m here. That this is it.

This won’t be a long excursion, but it’s one I have to make. I don’t intend on coming back. I’ve suited up and pushed the button already. I’ve done what I can, what I’m supposed to do. 

Now I just get to die.

[The remaining record is in audio format, broadcasted back to the Genesis to be saved.]

I hope this all saves okay. I just gotta do a few things before the end, but I’ll be as descriptive as I can. Apparently the brains at the UNSA didn’t seem to think that video imaging was necessary on a EVA. 

I closed the door behind me to the capsule. I don’t know if it’ll last a long time or not. Usually the kind of preservation that you’d hope for requires a vacuum, and Titan is far from that. If I’ve done my job right, it’ll be getting farther each day. 

I’m walking down the hill now. Above me, I see the Sun. Far bigger in the sky than it used to be. 

Pre-red giant, Titan was too cold for any shot at life. Once the Sun put on a few solar masses, it warmed up quite a bit. Enough so that we figured it was worth a shot. 

It all seems like a ridiculous plan in hindsight: To preserve our genome, then terraform another world, hoping that somehow we might be restored by whatever species rose up next. They weren’t embryos. Those would never last long enough, and that ethical quagmire was deeper that it had been with Exodus. No, they were just inert strands of DNA, hopefully enough to one day revive humanity. It’s stupid enough that I wish all the credit was mine, but Lucy helped. I just wish I hadn’t screwed it up. 

Goddamn, this suit is heavy.

The hills are pretty smooth here. I don’t know exactly where I landed. We hadn’t mapped it out too well. Titan was too far to be of interest to us. Once Mars and the Galilean moons were settled, we didn’t think too hard about the rest of the Solar System. It was too remote. I think they were considering the logistics of interstellar travel near the end. Based on Exodus, I’m guessing we didn’t quite get there.

It’s not fully our fault, you know. Nobody ever figured out why the Sun started to die so quick. It’s one of those questions I wish I had an answer to. Not that it really matters.

God, that was a long walk. You’d think it’d be more relative after a few billion kilometres, but apparently not.

There’s the lake. It’s not too idyllic; I wish there was a palm tree or something. I saw a few oases like this on my way down, spots of blue-black amid the orange-yellow light of the surface. Here’s hoping that changes with the atmosphere, cause it’s a bit depressing to look at.

Shit. Here I am. This is the spot where I’m going to die. 

It’s not really one of those things you think about. Most people probably die in bed, right? Does anyone ever wonder if this is the last time they’re going to crawl into bed, or is that just too damn morbid? 

Can’t help it now, I guess.

Looking around, I see Genesis on the ridge. If I squint, I can see a faint mist leaking into the sky. It makes me happy. I may have killed my crops, but I can still save the field.

I take the bag off of my shoulder. I hear the vials jangling inside. I hope I didn’t break them. Everything inside is already dead, but I need to give humanity a proper burial.

[For some time, silence. Laboured breaths are the only audio of record.]

It’s not a very deep hole, but it’ll do. I don’t exactly have a shovel, after all. 

I’m laying out each vial, one by one. We got them from all over the world. We wanted them to represent every part of humanity. Lucy and I had to rebuff a few of the ultra-rich who demanded that a part of them be allowed to travel away from catastrophe.  There was no prioritization for race or class or anything else. None of that mattered, because we were all human. 

I’m really sorry I let you all down.

[Silence again, save for the sound of unknown droplets]

The burial is done. I’m sitting on the edge of this lake and I’m running my hands along the edge of my helmet. The lake is deep and dark. Part of me wants to throw a stone into it, but I decided not to. I’ve disturbed this world enough. 

I didn’t do a eulogy. I couldn’t think of anything to say.

I glance back towards Genesis. The mist still comes steadily out from the exhaust ports.

It’s for a good cause, right? Seed a dead world with the chance for life, and hope something comes of it? 

I hate that I’ll never know.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just bitter. Maybe I’m rambling because I’m scared to die. Lucy and I knew this would happen in the end. It was always a one-way trip. Aboard the ship, there’s a needle filled with enough morphine to let me sleep forever. 

I left it there. After all of this, I’m not going to die on that ship.

Which brings me back to the side of this lake, where I’m fiddling with the latch of my helmet. 

I guess I need to do this. 

What else is there to say? I’m thinking of so many things. I’m thinking of how afraid I am. Of how beautiful Saturn was. How beautiful you were. I’m thinking of all the stars that shone my way here, and I’m thinking of my odds of success. 

No, I need to focus. I can’t think of how humanity will die today. It’s not about us anymore. If life takes hold on Titan, maybe that’s enough. Maybe whatever it is will find Genesis, and maybe they’ll look at the stars themselves. Maybe they’ll wonder who we were, or maybe they won’t.

[A long pause, punctuated only by shallow breaths.]


My head is finally quiet. I’m not thinking of any of that shit anymore. I swear, I’m not.

You know why? You’d laugh if I told you. Since you’re not here to tell me no, I’ll just say it:

I bear on my shoulders the collective lives, dreams, and memories of two hundred billion people, and all I can do is think of you.

[End of log.]

“Survivor Song” and the Love at the Core of Male Friendship

Courtesy of HarperCollins.com

“We will not intrude on Luis here, not for much longer. His past, particularly his regrets and recriminations, belong to him. We know enough and we will never know enough to understand what he will do next.”

Last year, I read Paul Tremblay’s Survivor Song. I consider Tremblay one of the best horror writers working now, but it is not a particularly frightening part of his latest novel that I choose to write about today. Instead, I want to take a look at a part that I fear most readers might glance past; a literal interlude in the story of the two desperate women making their way across a New England town ravaged by a super-rabies virus.

I was turned on to Tremblay by Stephen King’s Twitter recommendation of A Head Full of Ghosts, which remains one of the most frightening novels I’ve ever read. Following this, I read through Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and The Cabin at the End of the World, both of which might be more properly described as thriller than horror. With that in mind, I was excited to hear of the release of Survivor Song, which marks a return to novel-length horror for Tremblay. I was perhaps a little trepidatious though; unlike the horrors in A Head Full of Ghosts, which deals primarily with the question of whether a young girl is possessed or deeply mentally ill, Survivor Song’s horrors are much more personal for me.

In Survivor Song, a mutant strain of the rabies virus begins to spread rapidly through small-town Massachusetts. For those who aren’t aware, rabies in its current form is already an incredibly horrific disease. Once contracted, failure to receive a vaccine will result in a virtual one-hundred percent chance of dying horribly. There are exceptions, but those number in the single digits. The catch? By the time you know you have it, you’re dead. Once the disease has gone symptomatic, there is no applying a vaccine. There is only the knowledge that you will die, likely within a matter of weeks. You will die terribly, muscles aching, afraid of water, and losing your mind.

From 2017-2019, I lived in an apartment infested with bats. While neither myself, my partner, or my cats were ever harmed, there were multiple instances of bats in the apartment. They entered through holes underneath the radiator, a gap underneath the front door, or simply scratched and squeaked in the ceiling or in the walls. Sometimes my cats would run to the door late at night, and I’d peer through the peephole, seeing the flash of brown-and-black flying erratically around.

Landlords are useless under normal circumstances, of course, but legislation against the killing of bats (which, however I may have felt at the time, I understand), prevented anything other than efforts to remove and exclude them. This situation caused a great deal of anxiety for me, to the point when I still brace myself looking through the peephole at night or feel a rush of panic when one of my cats sniffs around at the base of my apartment door.

Returning to this disease in Survivor Song was therapeutic, in a sense. Seeing people confront this virus and fight for every minute of life they can get helped me recover from my own anxiety. In Survivor Song, it’s a matter of hours, not weeks, before the victims become symptomatic. The unreality of it contextualized my fear.

The book itself concerns the attack of a pregnant woman, Natalie, by a rabid man. Her husband is killed in the assault, and she is bitten. She quickly gets in contact with an old friend, Ramola, a doctor in town. Ramola meets her and ushers her to hospital, hoping to act quickly enough to prevent the virus.

I won’t spoil the rest of course, but much of the book concerns their journey and their friendship. And yet, at the core of the book, there is another friendship. It is covered in fewer pages and is not Tremblay’s focus. But there are sections of the book–interludes–that remind the reader that “this is not a fairy-tale,” even as the pages are decorated in such a way that evoke The Brothers Grimm.

One of these sections follows Luis and Josh, two friends who meet up with Natalie and Ramola midway through the book. They seem thrilled by the violence taking place around them; with mammals of all kinds susceptible to the virus, people are catching rabies from animals as innocuous as passing squirrels, who leap violently toward them, driven mad by the disease.

Luis and Josh clearly have watched The Walking Dead, describing the events as akin to a zombie apocalypse. They are excited for the adventure of a post-apocalyptic world, where society has collapsed and you are forced to make hard choices to survive. Ramola, of course, knows that, while tragic, the events are hardly apocalyptic; a virus that kills within hours is hardly likely to spread very far (conversely, part of the reason our own pandemic is so long-lasting is because it kills relatively infrequently and spreads easily), and as such, containment and protection of the survivors is the next task; not societal collapse.

Luis and Josh recognize that Natalie is hurt though, and so they band with Ramola and Natalie to help them get to help. During the course of their travel, they are attacked. While they are able to fight off their attackers, Josh is bit on the head by a dog. They part ways from Natalie and Ramola then, and this is where the interlude begins.

“You are not supposed to go back, you can’t go back, and if you attempt a return you will be forever lost.”

One thing that I think fiction often has a hard time portraying is male friendship. It exists, of course; there is certainly no shortage of fiction featuring men. But so much of it feels obligated to depict male friendship as this hyper-performative display of machismo, where men talk about what they ate or how much they can bench or who they fought or fucked. Ironically, perhaps, one of the better examples I’ve seen recently is The Sopranos, which I’m watching with my girlfriend currently. I’ve never seen it before, and while the show certainly has a reputation for all of the above, one of the things that has struck us the most is how deeply these characters care for one another. When was the last time you gave your friend a kiss on the cheek when you met up?

What Tremblay understands is that the core of male friendship is love. This is true of any friendship, of course, so this this might seem odd to read. And yet, years of conditioning have taught us to see open admittances of love between men as taboo — whether it might be some latent homophobia or simply cultural norms that have taught men to conceal their feelings, the end result is the same. How many times did Chandler and Joey embrace on Friends, only to awkwardly realize what they were doing, then separate to the hooting and hawing of the audience?

Josh has been bit on the head. It is a death sentence. Even if he had a vaccine, which he doesn’t, it’s far too late. Rabies is a virus that needs to reach the brain. It was delivered almost directly to it. Josh is a dead man riding a bicycle.

Still, he and Luis ride on.

Josh’s riding is erratic. He weaves and abruptly jerks his bike at hard angles when the road is clear. He shouts at shadows and he shouts at trees. He lists until Luis calls out his name, then he lists some more. Luis knows Josh will not be Josh for much longer. Perhaps he already isn’t Josh, or the new non-Josh is growing, metastasizing, laying claim. Regardless, Luis will follow Josh and follow him until he cannot lead anymore.

We know how this story ends. As Tremblay reminds us, this is not a fairy-tale. But, even as he insists it is a song, the story takes on aspects of fairy-tale. Luis and Josh leave the road, travelling into the woods. Perhaps emulating Michonne in The Walking Dead, Luis ties up Josh on a lead, wrapping a bandanna around his dying friend’s mouth to prevent him from biting. His friend’s mind is not yet gone, and so Josh acquiesces to this. They walk together through the woods, unable to ride any further. From the trees emerge all manner of mammals, driven mad by the virus; squirrels and rabbits and bats and bigger animals still, all homing in on the two friends.

Courtesy of Image Comics.

Even though his friend has already been bit, and even though he is already doomed to die, Luis will not let them have him. He wields the makeshift staff he carries like a trained warrior, snapping away at legions of creatures which swarm them.

“The teens more than endure the tiny terrors, they revel as though there never was and never will be a sweeter time, a greater moment. If not an apotheosis, this is them at their best, and they laugh and they boast and they shout and they live and they know there is no future.”

There is a surreality to this part. The thought of suburban teens expertly wielding a staff to fight off hordes of rabid animals is almost silly when you envision it. But Tremblay makes it work. This is not a fairy-tale, he reminds us. This is a song. It has no happy ending.

Surreality can only be stretched so far. The animals soon grow to be too much. They overwhelm Luis, and Josh pushes him to the ground. He shields his friend with his body, giving him everything that he has left. The bats rip and tear and bite and yet he does not leave his friend.

When at last it is over, they rise and come to a clearing. A rock with a split in it sits at its centre, which fans of Tremblay might recognize. It is here that the inevitable happens.

“Josh stops walking. He turns, and he has turned. This is the reveal of Zombie Josh, the zombie teen wth red coyote eyes, lips a ragged drawn curtain, foam and saliva faulting from his gagged mouth. Luis cannot help but stare at his friend’s teeth, as though he’d never really seen them before, seen them for what they can be. Hands still tied together, Zombie Josh rushes at Luis. Thus begins a dance that will last into the night. Luis will not hurt Zombie Josh, even though he’’s seen all the movies and knows all the rules. Instead, he will duck and he will dodge and he will sidestep and he will run.”

Luis refuses to hurt Josh, but he also refuses to leave him. They dance like this until the virus in Josh’s head rages through him, removing his ability to fight and bite. Josh is tired, and sits back against the rock. He no longer is conscious. His body is barely functioning. It is here that he will die.

And what does Luis do? What happens next is something I’ve never experienced in any kind of zombie or zombie-adjacent fiction. It is utterly novel and incredibly perfect and impossibly tragic. I will not summarize it, for it deserves to be read:

“Luis slips his hands under Josh’s head and ties the gag. The sopping wet bandanna slides easily out of his slack mouth. . . Luis rolls up his right sleeve.  . . Placing a thumb on Josh’s chin, Luis pulls down the lower jaw, opening the mouth. He takes the thumb away. Josh’s face and body tremors, but he doesn’t wake and his mouth stays open. Luis places the soft underside of his forearm into Josh’s mouth, the inside of which is as hot and damp as a sauna. Luis positions his left palm under Josh’s chin and pushes, closing the mouth, forcing his friend’s teeth against his skin. It hurts, but he doesn’t know if the teeth have broken through yet. He pushes harder and Josh convulses, perhaps because the body’s main airway is being blocked. There is still a spark of life within the engine. His jaws contract once, and hard.”

Suicide in post-apocalyptic fiction is nothing new, and it’s true that this is a suicide of sorts. And yet, it doesn’t read that way. It reads as an act of love; the desire from one friend to another to not let him travel into the dark alone. Instead of leaving his friend, or facing the now-clichéd moment of agony as he’s forced to kill his former friend, Luis chooses something different. His choice is made all the more powerful by the fact he cannot let himself be bit; he has to force the empty vessel of his friend to do it. It is his friend who sends him on his way.

Tremblay understands horror, because he understands what scares us. Certainly Survivor Song scared me in a way that most horror doesn’t, reminding me of some of the darkest moments in my own life. But Tremblay also understands that horror is not horror when there is no humanity. How many people, realistically, are afraid when Jason Voorhees machetes another interchangeable horny teen? We don’t root for the teen. We root for Jason. We want to see what he does. Like any work of art, the best horror compels the audience to care. If we care about art, then we can be moved, whether it is to tears or to screams.

It is this same gift that allows Tremblay to capture the love at the heart of male friendship. It is something that I wish more writers understood. We care about Luis and Josh because we’ve all been the stupid kid, wondering how we’d do in the zombie apocalypse. But more than that, we know what it is to love our friends.