#9 – Zombie in the Woodshed

“Wanna go play?”

Cade stared across the table at his younger brother, who was just now finishing up breakfast. Alex stirred the last flecks of cereal around in his bowl. The milk was dyed a snotlike green but he didn’t seem to care. He was focused on fishing out the last few pieces.

“Alex?”

“Yeah?”

“Didn’t you hear me?”

“I did. . . I was just thinking. Maybe we shouldn’t do it anymore.”

“Why not? It’s fun.”

“Fun doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Cade rolled his eyes. “It’s a game, Alex. It’s not like the Pope is planning on visiting.”

Alex sighed. It was fun. Sometimes, at least. “Fine,” he relented.

“Great!” smiled Cade. “Meet me out back when you’re done.”

“Sure thing,” said Alex. He watched his brother walk away. Cade stopped in front of the pantry for a second, then pulled out a case of soda. The cans rattled within. He hefted it up over his shoulder and then went out the back door. 

Alex watched the door for a moment longer, then turned back to his breakfast.

— 

Saturday morning dew clung to the grass and soaked through to Alex’s socks as he crossed the yard to the woodshed near the back fence. It sat in the shadow of a willow tree and though the rooftop shingles were curling up in places the building itself seemed otherwise in good condition. The door hung proper and straight and a heavy padlock curled around a clasp to seal it shut. Cade was leaning against the shed when Alex arrived, flinging the key about on a lanyard. It whizzed through the air and made beesounds.

“Finally,” said Cade. “Thought you’d gone to take a shit or something.”

“Frig off. I was just getting dressed.”

“Dressed to impress, right?” Then before Alex could respond and delay them any further, Cade turned and opened the lock. It fell to the grass. Then he pulled the door open and stepped inside. Alex followed him. 

The shed seemed to radiate an oppressive gloom, the daylight somehow harsh when contrasted with the dark. Cade reached up and pulled a cord and a sole yellow bulb coated in some unknowable film lit the place as best it could. A heavy green tarp the colour of garbage bags covered one corner of the room. There was a short pile of wood from last winter here, from when they weren’t sure how long the power would be out for. Against the other wall were a collection of tools: axes, sledges, and the like. Alex turned to look at his options while Cade pulled back the tarp.

It always took a moment for it to react when the tarp came back, which made a certain twisted sense; surely the neurons weren’t firing the same way anymore. Then a gurgling groan came from the corner. A single eye revealed itself slowly. It rolled about in its socket, leaping between the two boys. There was the clanging of chains and a low pulling sound of flesh against wood. The zombie crawled out of the shadows, its arms and legs chained behind it. It moved forward on its breast, leaving a thin trail of sloughed skin where it passed. It never stopped pulling. The eye never stopped moving. 

As it got closer, Alex was able to see the memories of their play. One eye hung loosely from its socket, dried and deflated. A shoot of bone erupted from its left shin. Ribs were visible underneath the loose tiedyed tank top the creature wore. They pointed out at strange, unsettling angles. Splintered teeth in the zombie’s mouth gave it a sharklike appearance. Cords in its neck strained to reach him. Against his best intentions, Alex recoiled.

Without warning, the sledge came down on the zombie’s back. There was a horrific sound of bones crunching like splintering drywall and a gout of blood erupted from inside the creature’s mouth, splashing out across the hardpacked soil floor. It began to soak into the earth. 

Cade hefted the sledge in his hand, smiling at Alex. “What are you waiting for? Have at it!”

Alex turned and selected a pair of garden shears from the tool wall. The light caught them and they glimmered with a hungry fire. Behind him, he heard the wet thud of the sledge hitting the zombie again. He opened the shears and turned to join in.

— 

It wasn’t something they had planned on doing, and neither of them knew fully what the consequences might be. Up until a month ago, zombies had only ever existed in movies. A minor outbreak of a mutated rabies virus from a military lab had changed that dynamic, but a swift response had limited the death toll to only a few dozen. The military sent out notices and set up hotlines so that the public could report any zombie sightings; under no circumstances were they to engage. Only if you were trapped, they emphasized, should you fight. Just like in the movies, the only way to kill one was by destroying the brain. It had been a PR disaster for the military, but the quick extermination of the zombies had settled the public’s nerves. 

Commentators later credited the plan’s success to people’s willingness to help. The public had had enough sense to stay indoors and to call the authorities when a zombie was sighted. 

The only exception to this had been Cade, who had awoken one day to the sound of somebody rummaging about in the woodshed. When he had gone out to investigate, he had found the zombie on its knees; perhaps looking for some animal that had run into the shed. Without stopping to think, Cade rushed into the shed, pulled a shovel from the wall, and hit the creature on the back of the head, poleaxing it. It slumped to the floor but was not dead. Cade considered killing it, but the high of the fight made his head swim. Another idea occurred to him. In a corner of the shed coated with dust he found the chains his dad used to secure the barbecue to the deck in the summer. He quickly wrapped them around the zombie’s limbs, then hammered them to the wall with large framing nails. Pleased with himself, he had rushed to find Alex. 

That was a week ago. They had been out to the shed every day since, taking turns with the zombie. Their only rule was that they couldn’t destroy the brain, or else the game would be over.

— 

They paused now for a quick break. They had opened two cans of soda and sipped at them greedily, the air in the shed hot and humid from their work. The metallic odour of blood bit their nostrils. Cade pulled another can out of the box and whipped it at the zombie. It bounced off the creature’s forehead, leaving a small dent, then rolled off into the woodpile.

Then the break was over. Whatever reluctance Alex might have felt that morning was gone now. His shears cut great sheaves of flesh from the zombie. Muscle barely clung to bone in places. Cade had switched to a cultivator, running it down the thing’s back like some hellish ploughman, carving deep red grooves into the monster. The zombie never stopped pulling at the chains. Never stopped reaching for its tormentors.

Eventually, they heard the sound of their mother calling them for lunch. Neither of their parents knew about the game, and neither son had any intent of telling. It was early in the spring and so it would be some time before either parent would need to go out to the shed. They still had time left to play.

“We should probably head in before she comes looking for us,” said Alex.

“Yeah,” said Cade. He placed the cultivator in a bucket of water that they used to soak the tools. His eyes now scanned the wall for something else he could use. “Cover for me for a few minutes, okay?”

“Sure thing,” said Alex. He went to leave, then stopped in the doorway. “Hey, Cade?”

“Yeah?” asked Cade. He paused, a short hatchet in his hand.

“This was fun,” smiled Alex. “Let’s do it again soon.”

“Same time tomorrow?”

“Deal.”

Satisfied, Alex smiled and closed the shed door behind him. He whistled as he crossed the yard, the faint sounds of violence following in his wake. 

#8 – Nightlight

This story is the second part of a longer tale. For the first part, click here.

You lie in your bed at the end of a busy Christmas day and think that this feeling must be one of the most sublime feelings a human can feel. You do not have the words to express this sentiment. The room is dark save for the light of the moon reflecting through slitted blinds from the painfully white snow which lies quiet and unbroken underneath the ash trees in the backyard. When Christmas was white, long ago. Downstairs are the murmuring sounds of holiday re-runs of Roseanne and Married… With Children playing loudly enough to be comforting but quiet enough to still allow sleep. Your parents in front of the television, happy with the joy they’ve brought you and the life you’ve built for you and your sister. You roll over. Maybe there is a new teddy bear next to you, or even just new pyjamas on your body. Something to remind you that though the world outside is busy and cold and unfeeling, tonight is still and warm and full of love.

Your parents have just tucked you into bed. They put the corners of the sheets down under the mattress in the way you like. You told your big sister, Stephanie, that this is simply to save you effort making it in the morning and to keep the cold out because sometimes the window gets drafty when the wind comes from the lee side of the house, but really it is because some childish part of your brain still runs free when the lights are off and the house is quiet save for the sounds of the television. The childbrain argues that monsters are real and since you’ve just seen the Oklahoma City Bomber on TV you know it’s true even if Timothy McVeigh can’t possibly be under your bed.

The room is quiet. You can still hear the noises from downstairs and see a faint yellow fan of light under the door from across the hall where your big sister talks on the see-thru phone she got special for Christmas, the one that’s on a separate line so mom and dad can’t listen in. This was very exciting for Stephanie but you can’t imagine why it would matter if mom and dad heard what you talk to your friends about. Her voice on the other side is comforting. The knowledge that somebody who cares about you is just on the other side of the door is a sacred thing, and you hold it close to your heart. It beats back the dark.

The only other light in the room is a small nightlight, just a pale blue orb behind a plastic butterfly. It’s plugged into the wall at the far side of the room by the closet. It doesn’t cast much light but it doesn’t need to. You’ve never liked the dark, not really. You used to sleep in the light but your mother and father sat you down and told you that you would need to grow out of this because the electricity had become more and more expensive in recent years. You were very upset about this but had been consoled by your parents agreeing to allow a low-wattage nightlight.

You watch it now through heavy eyes. The world just beginning to fade. Oblivion waiting. 

Then, without warning, the light rises. It lifts from its place behind the butterfly ornament that adorns the light and becomes marginally brighter. It’s still little more than a solitary Christmas bulb. It floats through the air slowly as if being guided by an unseen hand. You watch with a hesitant and uncomfortable mix of awe and fear as it halts just by the foot of your bed. You sit up. Childlike explanations without weight run through your head and fail to find purchase. 

The light shifts. There’s something behind it. Holding it. Fear unlike anything you’ve felt before tears through you. People always told you fear was cold but they were wrong, this is a blazing stripe of fire coursing through you, quickening your pulse and pulling at your heart. The light shifts as the bearer raises it past his face, and you see then that it is the face of a man except that it’s not; there are lines etched into it like kintsukuroi patterns except there’s no beauty here, just pallid skin and a mouth which seems to drift about the thing’s face like a toothy lilypad on the surface of a pond. You feel it steal your breath. Desperate for a solution, you reach out to your right and pull the light cord. The room fills with stale yellow light.

The man is gone. You look down to the right by the closet and see that the nightlight is still there, untouched. Your heartbeat begins to slow. The clammy feeling on your skin begins to recede. The fear doesn’t last as long as it would in an adult, whose mind would process its metaphysical implications. The child doesn’t care. She, who is you, just wants to sleep.

You read a book you had been given for Christmas for ten minutes and then the world begins to fade. Your body wants to sleep. You know you need to. With only the slightest hesitation, the light goes off again.

Click. 

The light floats there. The man’s face grinning behind. The smile has slid down now to where a mouth should be, and he watches you.

Click.

The light goes on. You hope mom and dad don’t notice. They wouldn’t like you playing with the light. You don’t think Stephanie would notice the flickering under the door anyway. She’s too busy on the phone. Besides, she wouldn’t tell. You and her share all kinds of secrets.

Click. 

The man is still there, the light still there. It has not moved. A wash of bravery overwhelms you and in the absence of other options you raise your voice to the shape in the dark.

“Hello?” you call.

“Hello,” he answers. “I’m sorry if I frightened you.” The voice reminds you of a wheezing cartoon elephant that you watch on Saturday mornings. High and breathy. 

“It’s okay,” you say, even if you’re still a little frightened. The apology has eased your feelings a little bit. “Why do you disappear when I turn out the light?”

The mouth drifts over to the man’s right cheek. It parts and his tongue lolls out. He points it cheekily and says “I don’t like the yellow light. It doesn’t feel good on my skin. That’s why I disappear when you turn the light on.”

“But why do you keep the nightlight with you, then?”

“Oh,” he says, and the mouth slides into a sideways frown. “That.” The light bobs up and down in the dark. “Well, it’s a little embarrassing.”

“You can tell me.”

“Really?”

“Promise.”

“Pinky promise?”

“Pinky promise.” You hold out your tiny pinky finger. It glows a fuzzy peach glow against the nightlight floating before you. A long finger, too long, curls itself around your pinky. It’s able to wrap itself around twice before stopping. It’s cold and dry and makes you want to pull back but something about the sanctity of the pinky promise keeps you from doing so. The thing behind the light smiles at you and then releases your finger. 

“Before I tell you what’s embarrassing, I’d like to know your name. I can’t keep a secret with anybody without knowing their name.”

This makes sense to you. You tell him your name and you feel a rush of excitement when the thing quivers with joy upon hearing it. 

“That’s a lovely name!” he cries. “What an absolutely beautiful name.” He then leans forward in a deep bow, bending at the waist until his head disappears beyond the foot of the bed. “I,” he exclaims dramatically, “am the Bric-a-Brac Man.” Then he pops back up, the smile replaced on his face. “And it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you too,” you tell him. You aren’t sure if you believe it, but your parents taught you it was the polite thing to say when somebody has introduced themself to you. You have more questions of course – why he’s called the Bric-a-Brac Man, for one – but now is not the right time. He has a secret that you’re dying to know.

“Tell me,” you insist. 

“Tell you what?” His voice is a pantomime. He’s speaking to you in the same way your father does when he pretends to be surprised by the simple card tricks you learned in the book Stephanie and you picked out at the library. 

“The secret!”

“I’m afraid I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

“You promised! You promised to tell me why you took the nightlight!”

The Bric-a-Brac Man holds the floating bulb up to his face as if he’s seeing it for the first time. “This?” he says. “Oh, this is just a silly thing. I just thought it was pretty. I assume that’s why you keep it on in your room at night.”

“Nuh-uh,” you say. “I keep it on in my room at night because–”

“–Because what?” 

You don’t answer right away. A realization has come to you, shuddering and powerful. You look at the Bric-a-Brac Man with the confident swagger you ascribe to the detectives you see on TV and whisper: “You’re afraid of the dark.”

A look crosses the Bric-a-Brac Man’s face. It’s just for a second, but you see it and you know that you’re right. You don’t laugh, though. It wouldn’t be right to laugh. “It’s okay,” you say. “Can I tell you a secret?”

“What?” asks the Bric-a-Brac Man. His face has disappeared behind the bulb again. The voice is sullen and heavy. 

“I’m afraid of the dark too.”

There is a long silence. Then, after a moment, you hear a sniffle. Empathy steals into you and you want to reach out, but you’re tucked into bed still. So you pull your feet out from under the covers and step out onto the floor. Your new pyjamas keep your legs warm. You hear the sound of Stephanie from the other side of the door but it doesn’t matter now because your new friend needs you. He’s right there, after all. For a moment, you consider calling out to see if mom can help because she makes everything and everyone feel better, but you decide not to. You’re a big kid now. You can handle things like this. You walk to the foot of the bed and put your hand on the Bric-a-Brac Man’s arm. It feels just as cold as his finger did, but that doesn’t matter. This is what friends are for.

“I’ve always been afraid,” says the Bric-a-Brac Man. “Ever since I was a kid.” He sniffs again. It’s the loudest thing in the room. You can see now that a pale knife of moonlight cuts across the pillow where you laid previously and you wonder for a moment what that must have looked like. The Bric-a-Brac Man continues. “I had a mean daddy that didn’t take care of me. He never bought me a nightlight and I just had to sleep in the dark. I was so scared all the time.”

You look up at him. He looks down at you, the blue light of the nightlight cold against his face. His smile rests higher than before, close to his nose. “It’s okay,” you say. “I’m afraid, too.”

“I just want to stop being afraid,” he says.

A thought comes to you. Something mom and dad always said. “My mom and dad told me that the best way to get used to the dark is to stop sleeping with the light on. That’s why they gave me the nightlight. So it would help me get used to just a little bit of dark first. And then one day we would get rid of that too.”

“I-I-I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”

You squeeze his arm. “Me neither.” 

“Maybe we can do it together?” he suggests.

Fear trickles into your gut. It’s slow and cold and makes you aware of everything at once. The sounds of your family. The absolute stillness of the world outside the window. The snow which curls against the pane. The muted hum of the furnace from the register in the floor. And the Bric-a-Brac Man – your friend – standing beside you. 

“Okay,” you say. “Let’s turn out the light. Just for a minute. Just a little at first, okay?”

He nods, but says nothing. You can see the fright in his eyes. The mouth rests against his chin, downcast and worried. 

“We’ll count down together. From three.”

“Can we make it five?” 

You look at him. You’ve never seen anyone look so afraid. You nod your assent. “Let’s take turns counting. I’ll start.”

“Five. . .”

“Four . . .”

“Three . . .”

“Two . . .”

“One–”

Then, for the briefest second, you see something flash in his eyes. It doesn’t look like fear at all. It looks like hunger.

The light goes out.

It does not come back on.

Part Two of Twelve

#5 – Hell Hospital

The elevator chimed softly when it reached the fourth floor. The man disembarked, taking a left at the junction. Sterile white walls framed the corridor. Low humming lights flickered above. People walked with brisk intent down the hall. The man walked between them, effortlessly altering his path as he went, briefcase in hand. The words PALLIATIVE CARE and an arrow pointing to the right were mounted on the wall at the next intersection. The man with the briefcase went right.

He found himself in another hallway, this one with a window at the end. A portal of light so as to make the hall look dark. The nurse’s station was on the left when he entered. It was quiet and dark and a half-drunk milky cup of tea was the only sign that anyone was still around. This was no surprise. Stryker preferred not to make weekend calls if he could avoid it, but sometimes there were no two ways about it. He glided past the nurse’s station without signing the visitor’s log. He walked to the end of the hall and into the room on the right.

The room was quiet and dim. An insistent, rhythmic beeping was the only sound. Stryker stepped up to the foot of the bed and tapped his pen on the tray-table that stood there. After a few moments, the resident of the bed woke up. For the deeply ill, wakefulness appears often as a simple fluttering of the eyes, perhaps a movement of the mouth. For Stryker, it was enough. He had a responsibility to his client to offer the best services possible, and that often meant adapting to their disabilities.

“Mr. Moorhouse,” Stryker began, “it’s a pleasure to see you again. I sincerely hope you’ve been doing well. I’ve heard the news that your illness is liable to move more quickly than anticipated. Please accept my deepest condolences; I was filled with a terrible sorrow at the news. As much as my work forces me to confront the reality of life and death, I still often find myself overwhelmed by the randomness and the injustice of it all.” His voice was quiet, practically a purr. It carried a beguilingly calm tenor, but was still loud enough to be heard by all who needed to hear it. “I have brought the final papers concerning the matters of the estate. Simply sign here, as best you can, and I will ensure that all parties are paid as we discussed.” He held out the forms, bracing them against a clipboard. With his other hand, he placed a pen in the dying man’s hand and brought it to the paper. He felt the barest twitch of the man’s wrist muscles against his fingertips as he traced out the man’s signature. 

“Thank you,” he whispered as he tucked away the documents. “Everything is in order, Mr. Moorhouse. Please allow me to thank you for your trust in me. I hope your remaining days are pleasant, pain-free, and that you are surrounded by the love of your family and friends.” He snapped the briefcase shut.

“Good-bye, Mr. Moorhouse.”

The hospital was still quiet as he left. The nurse’s station had an occupant now, but she was busy on the computer and took no notice of Stryker’s passing. The influx of people on the way in had been replaced by an eerie silence. He saw not another soul as he walked back to the elevator. His footsteps tapped an insistent patter against the cold walls. He once heard the distant sound of a custodian with a squeaking cart, but could not pinpoint its location. 

When he arrived at the elevator and pushed the button, Stryker found that he was holding his breath. He exhaled slowly, letting the air part his lips. Though he was a stoic fellow who did not shy away from the grimmer aspects of his work, he always found the hospital visits unusually unnerving. There was some quality about these places that he despised, as if the building itself was brushing up against the bounds of human existence, crossing over whenever another soul was claimed.

The elevator door shut. 

There was a groaning sound as the machine spun into motion. The car began to descend. Stryker stood by the console, briefcase in hand, waiting for the doors to open. He had only one more call to make, this one at the Cedar and Oak Retirement Community, then he would be finished his rounds for the weekend. He turned his mind to thoughts of home. 

The elevator door opened.

It took Stryker a moment to account for the difference, for the lack of light. He assumed at first that he had stopped on the wrong floor, but the dull digital light above the door read G, and pressing the button again made no difference. Confused, he stepped out of the elevator. He wondered perhaps if he had gotten turned around and stepped into the wrong elevator bank. 

He appeared to be in an unfinished wing of the hospital. Plywood walls were erected around all sides of the elevator landing. Plastic tarpaulin hung limply overhead and along one wall. The walls emblazoned with strange patterns in scarlet paint. Symbols indescribable. Stryker stepped out into the low gloom, wondering if he was underground. Grey light filtered in from somewhere, but he could see no source. 

“Hello?” called Stryker. 

The echoes of his voice sounded back, but nothing more. The only way forward was through a gap in the tarp. It was dusty and looked unused.

“This is ridiculous,” muttered Stryker. He turned to the elevator and pushed the button to summon it. It clicked under his thumb, but nothing happened. He pressed it again. Harder. 

Still nothing. Stryker kicked the door, but that only made his foot hurt. He placed his briefcase on the ground and then tried to fit his fingers into the seam of the doors where they met in the middle. He was able to grasp the lip of each door. He pulled with all of his might, straining against the door until he heard a stitch pop in his jacket. The door didn’t even budge.

“What the FUCK!?” cried Stryker. Blood pounded in his head. He wiped sweat from his brow. Angry and resigned, he picked up his briefcase. He was sure a quick stop with the hospital administration wouldn’t take more than a few minutes. He took a last parting look at the elevator before he left the room through the gap in the tarp.

The halls beyond were only dimly lit. Whatever light had filtered through in the vestibule by the elevator did not extend to here. Instead, only hazy yellow bulbs lit the way, perched atop blackened lamps. The light was sickly, unnerving. The sound of his footsteps seemed cacophonous when placed against the quiet. The walls down this corridor were silty and grey, the colour of waterborne sediment. Arrows had been hastily drawn on the walls long ago, judging by the layers of dust. Stryker wondered why the place was so quiet, considering the amount of construction underway. Surely they had some labourers to work weekends. He moved quickly through those halls, praying that his innate sense of direction would guide him to the nearest stairwell.

Stryker rounded the next corner, and was met with a room bathed in a deep red light. The room appeared to be a waiting room like any other in the hospital. Rows of chairs like pews set out under vacant TVs, gilded with racks of magazines from decades past. The hallway turned and disappeared around a bend, past the nurse’s station which stood derelict and empty and black. Little more could be seen in that angry light; the shadows were dark and leaping. Suddenly, the wash of fear that had threatened to overwhelm him was replaced by a well of relief; the light’s source was a neon EXIT sign which shone dumbly into the dark. It crowned a set of double-doors. On the doors was the universal sign of egress: a man climbing a set of stairs.

Stryker almost whimpered with relief, rushing for the door. As he moved, he shifted his briefcase to his left hand so that he could press against the door with his full weight. He slammed into it faster than he intended.

Unfortunately, the door did not open. Instead, Stryker’s shoulder gave way with a great shuddering pop. This was punctuated by his scream tearing apart the silence. He slid down against the door, whining softly. 

Stryker’s arm hung limp and dead at his side. Vague memories of a teammate popping in another player’s arm on the football field rose in his mind, dead since high school. His left hand rose without asking, reaching toward his right. Its fingers encircled his wrist, hovering seductively. Perhaps if he just–

“No!” said Stryker, pulling back his delinquent arm. Odds were only that he’d make it worse. He was in a hospital, for God’s sake. Surely somebody would be able to treat him. He reached up with his left arm and gripped the bar above him. It depressed but did not open the door. He pulled himself up with it, gritting his teeth as his dead arm swung flaccidly in place. Now on his feet, he turned and began to consider another exit.

It was then that the light flicked on in the nurse’s station.

The light was warm and golden and poured into every corner of the room. Startled but relieved, Stryker strained to make out the figure behind the frosted glass in the room beyond. He scanned the desk and saw a gleaming metal bell. He tapped it thrice with his good hand. The clarion sound rang out. The figure behind the glass stopped suddenly, then turned toward the door on the left side of the window. It swung open. The on-call nurse stepped out.

For a moment and despite the pain, Stryker was caught off guard by the woman before him. A slender, waifish figure, her eyes were pale lavender over her mask. As she approached him, they grew darker; violet almost. They were framed with black eyeliner and pierced him as he stepped to the desk. 

“I see you’ve suffered an accident,” she said. Her voice was soft, yet precise. It seemed to assure him that he was now safe. Stryker smiled to see her. 

“Yes,” he said. “It’s been a terrible day so far. I was conducting some business with a client on the fourth floor, then took the wrong elevator and ended up in the construction area just over yonder. Then I found this door, and in my haste I’m afraid I’ve dislocated my shoulder. Is there a doctor available to help?”

The nurse nodded along as he spoke. “I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “The fourth floor? You have a client there?”

“Yes,” said Stryker. “A Mr. Stephen Moorhouse. I’m afraid I can’t go into greater detail as to our arrangement, attorney-client privilege and–”

“I’m terribly sorry to be the one to have to tell you this,” interrupted the nurse, “but Mr. Moorhouse passed away just moments ago. They’re bringing him to the morgue now.”

“Oh,” said Stryker, uncharacteristically caught off-guard. “I’m sorry to hear that. I imagine you’ll notify the family? I’ll make sure all of the paperwork is drawn–”

“No, no, I don’t mean to make you go to all of that trouble,” said the nurse, interrupting again. “I just thought you might want to know.” She gestured behind Stryker. He turned and saw a wheelchair. “Why don’t you have a seat?” she asked. “I can bring you through to a doctor as soon as one’s available.”

“Yes, uh, okay,” said Stryker. He was still trying to calculate the timing of Mr. Moorhouse’s death in his head. How long had it been since he’d left? He sat down in the wheelchair. It rolled backwards a few inches. He checked his watch and tried to calculate when he had arrived and when he had left. How long had he spent trying to get back into the elevator? How long had he spent wandering the halls? He sat back in the wheelchair, then sat up suddenly when he realized he had forgotten his briefcase. He tried to ease himself out of the chair, wincing at the lancing shots of pain that tore through his shoulder. His efforts were stopped by a hand on his chest.

“Allow me,” said the nurse. Her eyes smiled at him over the mask. She stepped over to the briefcase, picked it up, and then placed it on the desk. “It’s right here for when you get back, okay?”

“I–I need it,” said Stryker lamely. “I’ve got all kinds of confidential documents in there. I really can’t leave it unsupervised.”

“It’s not unsupervised, silly!” chirped the nurse. “I’ll be right here with it while you’re in with the doctor.” She patted the top of the briefcase, producing a dull thumping sound. Her eyes fell to her watch. “Speaking of which, it’s about that time now! Let’s get you all fixed up.”

Stryker raised his hand to protest further, but the nurse swept past him and grabbed the handles on the wheelchair. She pushed and the wheels squeaked into motion. They rolled down the hallway beyond the nurse’s station, towards a set of pale doors with portholes for windows.

“Careful,” she whispered to Stryker. “There’s a bit of a bump.”

Stryker didn’t realize what she meant at first – was there some kind of divot in the floor? – and then the feet of the wheelchair struck the doors, swinging them open as if some uncanny kitchen lay beyond. The jolt of the impact rippled through Stryker’s body, causing him to cry out with pain. Spots bloomed before his eyes. The world swam.

“Aw jeez, I’m sorry!” said the nurse. “I didn’t think it would hurt that bad, what with the injury being in your arm and all.”

Stryker turned in the chair as much as he could, blinking away the pain. This had been the final indignity. “Are you insane, woman? Let me tell you, this whole hospital is in for an absolutely apocalyptic lawsuit! First the elevator takes me to an entirely separate section of the hospital. Then I find that section is under construction, without any kind of warning sign or direction as to the way out – not even a fucking drywaller to point me in the right direction! Then, when I finally find the way out, you hide in your little fucking booth and allow me to dislocate my fucking shoulder on a door – one which, for some reason, doesn’t even work!” Spit flew from his mouth as he spoke, spattering the front of the nurse’s scrubs. He didn’t care. Stryker believed firmly that people deserved exactly as much as what they gave out. 

“Look, mister, I’m sorry. I know you’re in a lot of pain, and I think that’s made you pretty grumpy. I totally get that, and I won’t hold it against you. In fact, I think I have just the trick!” She reached into her pocket and shuffled around.

“I don’t need anything other than a doctor and my briefcase,” insisted Stryker.

“Well, the doctor’s on the other side of this door,” said the nurse. Only then did Stryker realize they had stopped. A sign on the wall read Office of Dr. _______. The name seemed to drift and fade whenever Stryker focused on it. He shook his head cartoonishly, perhaps in an attempt to clear his vision. It didn’t work.

“You’ll get the briefcase back after you’re all fixed up,” continued the nurse. “ I don’t know why you don’t believe me when I say that.” She considered for a moment. “I don’t want you behaving with the doctor the way that you’ve been with me. He really doesn’t have patience for that sort of thing.” 

Stryker turned to speak, incredulity roaring inside him again, but was interrupted by the nurse clasping a hand over his mouth. His eyes rolled with panic. He felt something on his tongue, then realized the woman had slipped him some pills. They rolled around in his mouth. When the nurse realized he had not swallowed, she pinched her thumb and forefinger around his nostrils. Alarm tore through Stryker. He fumbled with his good hand at her wrist, but it was his left hand and her grip was iron strong. At last he gave up, swallowing the pills.

“What the hell was that?!” he cried, gasping for air.

“Just a little something to help you feel better,” said the nurse. “Now it’s time to see the doctor!” She knocked sharply on the door, then leaned forward across Stryker’s body to open it.

The room beyond was dark. The nurse pushed him further out to sea. The light from the door behind them the only sign of shore. The wheelchair stopped moving. Stryker waited a moment for something to happen, then realized with a start that the nurse was no longer there. Then, with little notice, the door swung shut, leaving Stryker in the cavernous black.

How he screamed and howled! Fits of roiling fury rolled through the lawyer, coming in ebbs and flows and then great waves which threatened to bathe the entire room in a wash of red, so great was his anger. When at last he was exhausted, his throat was raw and his shoulder ached violently. Anger began to turn to fear. Man was not meant to enter places like this, Stryker thought. Man was meant for places where the sun shone freely and the darkest nights were still bathed in starlight even in the absence of the moon, perhaps with the sound of water lapping gently against some distant shore, and the cries of bullfrogs and the buzzing of the night insects like a distant orchestra thrumming with the sounds of the reeds in the woodwinds buzzing like the reeds in the water and then Stryker realized he was stuck in his chair and the panic set in anew though the pain had gone and he was then struck with the knowledge that he was incredibly, impossibly high, and he laughed and laughed in the inky pitch of that room thinking of how he would sue the nurse, then the doctors, then the whole fucking hospital before he was through.

Stryker’s giggles had just begun to subside when the lights came on, spinning like wheels on the ceiling, kaleidoscopic patterns striking out to the walls in an effervescent pilgrimage. They shone on the operating table which gleamed a wicked metallic colour and behind it stood a man in a white jacket whose lips were peeled back to his black eyes revealing great raw bloody gums and tombstone incisors. Stryker screamed with laughter, gasping and fumbling in the chair and even though the pain in his shoulder was white-hot he pushed himself free of the chair, falling to the floor. The doctor said something and the sound was a cannon’s boom in that quiet room and Stryker yelled BELAY THAT ORDER for he had seen enough movies to know when an order needed belaying, but nobody listened and two shadows materialized beside him and lifted him screaming on to the table. A flash of scissors and his shirt fell away, exposing his naked belly to the room entire. The doctor said something more and the sound this time was a low murmur which crept and skittered over Stryker’s skin. Restraints appeared and held Stryker to the table. Stryker screamed and shook at them to no avail.

The doctor bent over Stryker, the slavering mouth hovering but inches before him. When he spoke, the words sounded inside Stryker’s head.

“Well,” he said, “let’s take a look at you. Normally I would have had our nurse take you to radiology, but you were so terribly rude to her that I think it’s best if we find another solution.”

Stryker opened his mouth and the words flowed out onto his chest, all different letters jumbled up and lost.

“We’re going to have to quickly realign the arm. You’ve been moving it about so much that I worry for the tendons. I just need to finish with Mr. Moorhouse, then I’ll be right with you.”

The doctor then got up and walked over to another table. Cold filled Stryker’s chest. His client was sitting up on the table, totally naked. He waited patiently as the doctor listened to his chest and then looked inside his mouth and his ears. Eventually, the doctor clapped the dead man on the shoulder.

“Good to go,” he said.

Mr. Moorhouse leapt to his feet and stepped up to Stryker. The light shifted and Stryker saw that the old man’s eyes were scratched out. 

“Goodbye, Mr. Stryker,” said Mr. Moorhouse. The old man then turned and walked through the door. A brilliant light shone beyond and the man disappeared.

“Now,” whispered the doctor in his ear. “Back to you.”

Stryker felt great rough hands grasp his injured shoulder. He opened his mouth to beg but was silenced by a piercing shock of pain. He blacked out. He dreamt things that man is not meant to dream. Planes of being swam before him: entire worlds; all worlds. They spun away into an unfeeling darkness.

When Stryker woke, he was in a bed. Light shone in through a window. An IV was connected to his wrist. His head pounded. His shoulder was in a sling and ached dully. He saw his briefcase lying on the small visitor’s table. He looked around the room with awe, clenching and unclenching his fist against the thin polyester of the sheets. 

A knock on the door made him jump, but he relaxed when he saw a smiling nurse looking at him with kind eyes. He recognized her from the nurse’s station in the palliative ward.

“Where am I?” he asked. His voice was a gravelly croak. His throat felt dry and raw.

“Just a recovery room,” she said gently. “We’re not totally sure what caused it, but you had some kind of episode when you learned that your client, Mr. Moorhouse, had passed on. It caused you to fall and dislocate your shoulder. I guess you’re lucky it happened in a hospital, right? Not very far to go for treatment.”

“I-I had some terrible dreams.”

“Dreams can’t hurt us, Mr. Stryker. That shoulder sure can, though, so I’m going to run through a few exercises with you to make sure everything’s all set, then you should be good to be released today.”

“Right, okay,” said Stryker. He laid back in the bed and finally allowed relief to take him. 

Two months later, Stryker got the bill in the mail. He had actually almost thrown it out; he had been so occupied with finalising the late Mr. Moorhouse’s estate that anything else seemed secondary. Luckily, the logo of the hospital on the front of the envelope caught his eye. He tore the letter open and unfolded the bill. When he saw the last line item, he gasped and dropped the letter. Panic gripped his heart and he was forced to sit down. His shoulder had begun to throb.

Shoulder Setting – $880

Wheelchair Use – $300

Sling – $200

Plutonian Painkillers – $750

Consultation – Abbadon Ward – $666

Stryker looked at the letter for a long time. Perhaps some part of him hoped that doing so would change it. But it didn’t. 

With a sigh of dismay, Stryker picked up the phone and called his insurance company.

#4 – I Took A Picture

“I took a picture,” said Jeff to his mother, tugging on her pant-leg. “Look at it.” He held it upright, waving it at her. “I took a picture with my camera.”

Leanne smiled. Jeff’s camera was one of the small old-fashioned Polaroids you could get for a hundred bucks at the electronics store. Jeff had been interested in photography ever since he’d begun reading Spider-Man comics and decided that he wanted to be Peter Parker, so it had made for a perfect Christmas gift. But now it was dinner that same day, and there was no time to be looking at pictures.

“That’s very beautiful, sweetie,” said Leanne, barely glancing at it. She saw a dark blotch and little more. The light never seemed to work right for those cameras, but she didn’t have time to think about it; she was in the middle of figuring out the stuffing recipe Jaz at work had given her. She hadn’t made stuffing in years, and she hadn’t planned on it this year, but then her parents had told her they’d be in town after all and so she had felt obligated to do things perfectly. Looking down at Jeff, she was sure she was doing the right thing. That didn’t make it any less stressful. 

“You didn’t look, mom.” 

“I did! It was very pretty.”

“It’s not pretty, it’s art. It’s a portrait.”

“A portrait of who?” asked Leanne absentmindedly. 

“I don’t know who he is. I just saw him and took a picture and then ran away.”

When had Jeff gone outside? The weather had been awful this Christmas, raining insistently for the last three days. There wasn’t a speck of snow to be seen, either; Leanne was disappointed by this. She remembered white Christmases all through her youth, and hoped that Jeff might one day remember them, too. “Well,” she said, “it’s not polite to take pictures of strangers without their permission.”

“He asked me to,” came the answer from below.

Circumstance might have still allowed for things to be different at this point. If Leanne had not been so distracted, or her parents sleeping so quietly in the next room, then perhaps Jeff might not have taken another picture that day. 

“Well,” said Leanne, “that’s a little bit different. It’s okay in those circumstances. But please make sure to only take pictures of strangers when mommy is around, okay? I don’t want anybody taking it the wrong way.”

“Okay, mom.” 

Satisfied, Leanne bent down and kissed her son on the top of his head. Jeff endured this, then walked around the kitchen island and through to the adjoining living room. Grandma and Grandpa slept on the plush sofa, their heads each lying softly on the other’s shoulder. Some old black-and-white film played on the screen before them, the MUTE symbol flashing on the left. Jeff thought about waking his grandparents under the pretense of telling them they were missing their movie, but decided not to. He would show them the picture at dinner.

With little to do before then, Jeff decided to practice with his camera some more. He walked into the dining room. The table wasn’t as big as it had been during Christmases where dad was still around, but that was okay. It still looked beautiful. Once before, Jeff had suggested to his mother that they open up the leaves and make a setting for Dad, but then his mother’s eyes had welled with tears, and Jeff had immediately dropped the subject. He later had promised himself that he’d never suggest anything like that again. 

The place-settings were still beautiful, however, so up went the camera.

CLICK!

There was a soft whrrr as the camera printed the picture. Jeff took it out, then flapped it about in the air in front of him. He slipped it in his pocket to let it develop. Then he went on to the next room. 

He proceeded to take pictures all through the house. He had decided that they might need them if they ever had to sell the house. He hoped they never would, but his best friend Mark’s parents had gotten divorced, and then he had moved two months later. Jeff wasn’t sure if it was different when a parent died instead, but thought it would be polite to be prepared. He passed through the house like a phantom, going room-to-room. He finished upstairs in the bathroom, where the faint smell of vanilla hovered in the air.

“All done,” he said to himself.

But that wasn’t true, and he knew it. He still needed to photograph his bedroom. He turned and exited the bathroom, then took the few steps down the hall toward his door. The walls were a pale brown, and he imagined himself a gunslinger on some dusty mesa, preparing to face his foe.

Jeff opened his bedroom door and stepped inside. There was a soft whining sound as it swung shut behind him.

“Hello again, Jeffrey,” said a voice. It had a wheezing, foppish quality to it. “Have you come to take my picture again? That last one was really good, but I think we can get a better one with you and me in it.”

“No,” said Jeff, “I’m just taking a picture of my bedroom for something I’m working on. Then I’ll be done taking pictures for today.”

“That makes me quite sad,” replied the voice, heavy with sorrow. “I told all of my friends that I would bring back a picture of me and my new friend Jeffrey.”

“Mom says she doesn’t want me taking any more pictures of strangers without her around.”

“Strangers?!” cried the voice. “Well, I suppose I can see why you feel that way. After all, I know your name, but you don’t know mine. I’m happy to introduce myself if you’d like, but I need you to look at me. You don’t look at me when we talk, and that makes me very sad.”

Jeff whispered something.

“What’s that?” asked the voice. “I’m sorry, Jeffrey, but I can’t hear you when you whisper. You’ll need to speak up.”

“You scare me, okay?” 

“Oh . . . I’m sorry. I know I’m not the most handsome guy around, but I was told a long time ago by my mother that it was what’s on the inside that counts. Didn’t your mother ever tell you the same thing?”

“Yes,” admitted Jeff.

“I would really appreciate it if you said sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jeff.

“Thank you,” said the voice. “I humbly accept your apology.” There was a sound then–an unfurling sound, as if of wings. “Now Jeffrey, why don’t you look at me? You’ve apologized, so I think the best thing you could do now is look at me so I can properly introduce myself. You weren’t even looking through the viewfinder when you took the last picture!”

Without warning, Jeff felt his legs begin to turn towards the sound. He did not know if his brain had betrayed him, or if the thing in the corner was exerting some kind of malevolent force against him. He considered trying to make a break for the door, crying for his mother, or even just hiding under the bed. In the end, he did none of these things because he was very scared. When one is frightened, they are liable to do things that seem illogical to any outsider. 

Jeff’s legs thus continued to turn, until at last he got a good look at who the voice belonged to.

It had the aspect of a man, but was far too tall, its back arced where it met the ceiling. It had a great black cloak which fell behind it, and wore a pitch-black bowler hat. Its face leered from under the hat, a china-white visage that seemed fractured and patchwork. Torn across its face was a great sideways smile, which floated about its brittle skin like scum on the surface of a pond. Inside the cloak were a number of knick-knacks and ornaments, the kinds of small collectible that could be found at any antique store or in your grandmother’s curio cabinet. Some looked very old, while others shone brightly. It glittered and jangled as it moved.

“I,” said the voice proudly, its owner descending into a deep bow, “am the Bric-a-Brac Man.” It smiled, and the smile crawled up next to its eyebrows. “I would very much like to take a picture with you now, Jeffrey.”

And so Jeff’s legs began to pick themselves up, then place themselves down. Step by step, he drew closer to the nightmare in the corner. The Bric-a-Brac Man’s face loomed over him. Then he was there, and the creature bent down so that it was at the same height as him. One arm curled over his shoulder, drawing him closer. It felt stiff and cold. There was the faint smell of oranges and chocolate. 

“What do you think, Jeffrey?” asked the Bric-a-Brac Man. “Do you want to take a selfie?”

Jeff nodded, too scared to speak.

“I’ll take it!” cried the Bric-a-Brac Man. “I think I’ve got a longer reach.” He plucked the camera from Jeff’s trembling hands, then reached his arm out impossibly far, until it almost touched the ceiling. He faced the camera back towards them, one crooked white finger on the shutter.

“Now,” whined the Bric-a-Brac Man, “make sure you smile real good for me, okay? I want this to be a great picture! Say wheeeeeeee!” 

Wheeeee!” moaned Jeff.

Click!

The room was briefly illuminated by a flash, and then it was quiet. There was a soft thudding sound as the camera fell to the floor, then a papery whisper as the photo printed. It would not be discovered for another thirty-eight minutes, when Leanne would come to fetch Jeff for dinner. She would first linger in the doorway, calling out to see if he had decided to play hide-and-seek. Then she would turn on the light, for day had faded to dusk. She would check under the bed, and then in the closet. Only then would she find the camera where it had fallen. From there, she would find the picture. 

The picture, which would be her first step on the path to insanity, showed a man in a black hat with a harlequin face, a smile on his nose, and his eyes locked firmly on the boy in his arms. That boy was Jeff, who stared at the camera with a tetanus grin and tears filling his eyes.

Leanne screamed until her throat began to bleed.

Part One of Twelve

#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?”