Impact is coming. Fire, dust, dirt, glass, tinted glass, plexiglass, fibreglass, and concrete, limestone, sandstone, steel, aluminium, alloys of all kinds, timber, tenderising shrapnel from everything that made up the modern world.
I’m wobbling on my feet but Arthur and Zoe pull me down to an escalator to go deeper. We keep going deeper and the echo drains like the sound of the ocean air when you’ve got water in your ears and you’re trying to fall asleep. We get to the bottom and there is a service escalator with faded sky blue doors. A little boy cries to my right and I look over, he is in the arms of what anyone would assume is his mother and father. They are squatting on the stairs with the ugly tiles watching over them. The mother weeps and it sounds beautiful like a piano concerto. The father’s cry is deep like a roar that he’d never let out before. He is mad but he swallows it, smiles, and kisses both of their heads. I fall down limp against the door. I am about to die. We’re all about to die and lose everything. That’s fine. It’s all fine. I can’t tell if what I’m touching is hot or freezing. I’ve never felt so much pain. This is all I have. A pin prick of an instant in time. And I’m not with my poor mother and father. They have each other. They need me. I don’t have time to roar. I’m going to die weeping and I don’t care. I want to be with my family. I should be with someone. I want to be with someone I lo –
It wasn’t over. I woke up from a stasis sleep decades later in ‘Sub Zone 31’. Our machines were damaged. Arthur was dead.
I didn’t wake up groggy as far as I could tell. I came back thrashing at a teenage guy with pasty and pudgy skin in a concrete and steel room tainted green. I roared and fell to the floor not sure if it was actually a floor or even real. Next thing I remember is him helping clean and reorientate Zoe while mumbling about meeting an original Elite.
“What’s an Elite?”
“W-what makes someone an Elite?” I said.
“I don’t know, you just are” the guy stared at me like my nephew stared at me when I was hungover but smiling on Christmas morning.
“No one’s ever told you who they are?”
“Who you are? You’re the survivors”
“Who are you then?”
“We protect you, as you decided”
“I don’t understand”
“He’s still disorientated. They’re the grunts, remember?” I stared at Zoe as she got the young guy’s attention. She looked nothing like my mother.
“You’re a grunt?”
“This is how it is sir; how it’s always been. You are the Elites we have been protecting and providing for until Reanimation & Resurfacing, which I’m sorry to say is still eleven months and eight days away…”
“Why are we early! We were meant to complete a cycle of seventy-two years” Zoe said.
She stood by the machine she said Arthur had been in. I lay down in a maintenance bunk and watched her. She wasn’t crying. My neck hurt craning to look over at her, but everything hurt. Her ass was bared and poking out from her underwear. Her legs were long slim lines of white. I wondered if she took my clothes off or if Arthur did. I thought I was free of this. My dick was sensitive and I rolled over to puke into a bin. My mother was dead and no one knew her. I strained to think of her face. I just saw Zoe’s sarcastic smirk and the hooker with a bullet hole in her head.
“I don’t know. I was told that this hatch was damaged in the event”
I opened my mouth to yell but didn’t. I looked down the corridor. There were chambers I’d assumed full of people, and they weren’t. I looked out through the window and saw the cavern for what it was. I puked some more and tried to go back to sleep. Zoe stomped her little body over to me like a girlfriend I’d had once. She slapped me in the shoulder and I laughed. The young guy was shuffling his feet and trying not to smile I think. His skull was as round as I’d ever seen and his teeth were slightly bucked but he was thickly built and lean.
“We saved you. We weren’t supposed to save you!” Zoe said. She slapped me hard. My dick was slightly hanging out of my underwear.
“I am to believe the reanimation process is difficult, and I apologise for the lack of ceremony again. As I said, there was a problem with your machines and I had to end stasis. But –”
“My dad died and you let him… Then you got rid of his body? Why didn’t you help him!”
“It was a number of years ago. I…” He was still smiling and he couldn’t make eye contact.
“So what year is it?” I asked and wondered if I’d dreamed anything.
“Sir, it is 2085. In eleven months and eight days we will reanimate all of the remaining Elites”
“I missed the sixties again?”
“You are such a comedian!” Zoe’s face was getting red. Her knees wobbled and she puked in a yellow-green lumpy stream. I sighed.
“Please… I am in violation of the supervisor regulations. If the stasis period continued there would be little hope of reanimating you both in good health, and I could not let that happen” He looked at her for almost every syllable he said. They argued more and she did a good job of not crying. It scared me.
After a difficult shower where the water tasted sweet and echoed against narrow grey walls, I put on clothes that felt familiar and sat down for powdered eggs with orange cheese. The guy said his name was Mark. No surname. Grunts don’t have them. The bread was salty and soft. Mark covered it in a slime called Uratyn then dipped it into a metal bowl full of soup. The cheese was a rare gift that he’d saved.
“Thanks” Said Zoe.
“You don’t have Yoghurt?” I said.
“I’ve heard of that. Bad, bad stuff. We have Tea”
“Shit. Alright, what kinds of tea?” I got ready to tell him about cafes and tea markets and all those things I loved in hindsight. Zoe just ate.
“What do you mean kinds? Tea is tea”
“Ok. Do you have milk and sugar?”
“I’m sorry, I’m not an Elite, so this really was as much dairy as I could save. As for sugar, that’s too strange. You’re funny –”
“He was a comedian. So was my Dad”
“A family of comedians? Wow. No comedians survived as far as I knew. We have a few now, but I don’t really like it…”
“Mark, you said you’re not an Elite, but how could you be? They’re all in stasis” Zoe said. She wiped soup-sauce from her lips and a clear streak fell down her pointy chin; shiny and stark. “Aren’t they?”
He explained it for us. None of it made sense to me. There were too many questions so I ignored them and nodded, waiting until I could ask about a beer. Zoe was looking for confirmation and she was angry. Poor Zoe. Poor Arthur. Poor us all.
“You didn’t need to save me…”
Zoe and I shared an apartment with one room. We had bunk beds, concrete walls and only one window with no view. Most grunts lived in slightly better digs while everything was kept tidy throughout the Sub Zone and there was plenty of food for free but nothing else was. Mark got me a job in a bar while Zoe became a stasis technician. He managed to make up fake identities to hide from the ‘Chaebol’ that he’d brought us out of stasis. We had to keep a low profile, he said. Transfers of grunts between zones were rare but possible, so that was our story. After a week I got tired of being around Zoe because she was all I had tying me to my old life.
“I mean, I didn’t need to be saved” I leaned on the bunk and chewed my teeth. I was tired from my shift, and she was tired from waking up for hers.
“Are you trying to thank me?”
She laughed and cracked her knuckles into fists. Her lip shook. I had that sting in the back of my throat I get when I’m about to cry or be honest.
“You’d have to think of someone else to thank them?” She said. I didn’t look her in the eye.
“I was ready to die”
“You looked scared as shit”
“I bet I did, but I deserved it”
“Y’know… Christ, it doesn’t have to mean anything”
“I was good to die”
“Is that really what you’re moping about?”
“Zoe, that has to mean something”
“Jesus, stop trying to impress me”
“You’re a mean little shit”
She whipped her jacket tight and flung it at my balls. “I’m going to work”
I tried to sleep. I used to be good at it, but dreaming loses its edge when you go through an apocalypse and resurrection. I was lucky if I dreamed anything sane, and by that I mean without death flashbacks.
We had a steel table covered with a canvas sheet that might have been a painting in its past life. The table was against the wall and Zoe leaned back with a knee pushing into her tits like a Renaissance Madonna in a painting or a pissed off beat poetess or a classic punk rock princess. Mark was laughing and Zoe was telling a story about driving with Art. She was a dancer who loved to snowboard. Art was a bad driver and a bad driving teacher, so one time just before the news report went global and official she had him drive her to the slopes for a long weekend and he crashed the car. Not badly, he just slid off the road when they were going slow. She got him to let her drive because she equated driving on snowy roads to controlling a snowboard. She was good at that kind of bullshit but Art always let her do whatever she wanted without letting her know why.
“Morning Mark. Zoe”
“I know. Having some beers?”
“I thought we might have a bit of a night out, and stop in to see you at the bar”
“Maybe we’ll go dancing too. Let out some tension”
“I know someone I could bring along for you and see if you could start performing again. Does that sound good?”
I grabbed a beer from our little fridge,
“Mark, tell me again why you let sixteen-year-olds drink?”
“Technically I’m almost ninety” Zoe said.
“Well, your sister is not so young as our youngest here who drink, but still, we make sure everyone behaves responsibly no matter what their age”
I turned back around and looked into the cupboard.
“Zoe, did you eat the last of the jam?”
“So you’re not going to perform comedy again?” Mark said.
“There wasn’t much choice” Zoe said.
“If you like, I brought you two some Uratyn since you haven’t any. I can understand being afraid to try new things after your stasis, but it really is good. It takes the sting out of our terrible bread”
“You tried it?” I looked at Zoe.
I spread it on some bread and left them to rock on shitty chairs, trying not to stare too much at each other. I could walk to the bar in twenty minutes through alleyways and walkways with faded art, chewing at the bread and Uratyn. It tasted like off cheese, melted down and stewed in unwashed pan grease, then sprinkled with sugar. Finishing it with a beer helped. I spat out chunks of grey pulp and it stuck to the walls in a bulbous hump that could have been alive, glaring out from a backdrop of cleanliness and composure.
The bar sprawled out with a low ceiling and no style. More or less like an underground bar almost anywhere would have looked before. People were dancing, drinking and trying to fuck. Work was easy: Pour drinks and smile, tease girls, tell guys they’re amazing and be enthusiastic about music with no meaning. The things people wore reminded me of Berlin. There weren’t any sweatshops down in the Sub Zones. A lot of dyed hair and mis-matched colour with clothes that exposed the wrong parts.
Mid-way through the shift, Zoe and Mark showed their faces. She was smiling and her hair was bouncy. Mark looked crisp and younger than me. They danced. Zoe had a lot of swivel in her hips and Mark was dorky. One of the girls working the bar with me was dark skinned, with black tattoos and shards of metal hanging all around her lean body, shining and showing off. Her name was Roshana. When she flirted with me I saw the brunette stripper shoot herself in the head again and again. Eventually I saw her dead body and raped and lumped on the blue carpet. Then I saw Zoe’s mother lumped on the hotel bed with a knife in her chest and I drank a shot to keep from falling over.
“What’s it like where you came from?” Roshana asked.
“It was pretty easy to get lost” I said.
“Huh. I wish I could get lost here. I wish” She trailed off and served a guy a round of shots. Before she did though I looked at her black eyes, then her sideboob, then I knocked back a shot to keep from falling down. I laughed out loud and hit the low hanging red lamp so it swung back and forth near my face.
“You know what you’ll do when we resurface?” I asked.
I laughed. She didn’t.
“Fuck the Elites, I mean… What about the animals? What’s up there? Nothing”
“I’d like to see some horses, and birds. A-and mountains…”
“I’d like to see your tits. Your filthy tits”
“Just for a minute, then we can go back to work that inches us closer to something else that matters. Just for a minute”
“It won’t just be for a minute”
“It’ll be less no doubt”
“No, it’d be more because you’d have that in your head for a long time after”
“My memory isn’t that good”
“You’re a smooth talker”
“And a cutie”
She laughed. I couldn’t see very well and it felt worse than usual. Waves flushed up from my stomach. The bar wasn’t crowded though it wouldn’t close for another four hours. We closed it sooner than that and Roshana took a cup of tequila and opened a thick capsule into it then told me to drink it.
“You guys do take drugs here?”
“Lylix? Only things you can smoke are drugs and the Chaebol doesn’t allow that. This’ll just make you feel really good and out of it. Like eating a whole jar of Uratyn while having a massive orgasm.”
She had a point and the light glistened where it needed to at the right moment. Pretty soon there was a cloud of fake smoke and paint that never dries thumping around us, as we danced to music that tapped into a part of me that loved hope and crying for ideals. It was a lusting anger driving in waves but the vocals had enough fear to level out too much cynical thinking. Then I wanted cold lips and a hot vagina to tango with. I was still fucking alive and I laughed until I couldn’t come inside her no matter how hard I pumped and bit down on her neck or hummed a sweet diddy. Rolling out of her bed somewhere in the fake dawn to smoke and drink flat champagne, she told me to stop looking so deep and just eat her cunt so she could get some sleep.
“I haven’t seen you in a few days” Zoe was on her bunk when I walked in.
“I’ve been hanging out with people from work”
“The grunt girl?”
“You weren’t at work”
“It’s not easy to get lost in a tiny underground city”
“No. It is easy to get noticed by the wrong people”
“You know something I don’t? You and Mark have a nice little conspiracy together huh?”
“If the Chaebol or any of the Elites look into your identity they’ll see you don’t belong”
“The Chaebol are good. They look out for our best interests”
“You still don’t care about anything or anyone”
“You’re still trying to define the world, but you can’t save it anymore”
“Do you even remember all the people who died?”
“I’m getting better at not remembering them and not missing the sky, or sunlight and hot grass”
I walked to the kitchen sink and put on some tea to boil. There was still wind in the Suz but it had an inconsistent sting to it from the atmosphere stabilising chemicals. They, or age had stained our drapes and left the lime green checkers with a grit that almost looked pretty, but slimy to the touch. When the tea was ready I breathed the smell in and farted. My lungs felt bruised on the inside and my intestines were quaking.
“It’s disgusting to have to pretend to be your sister”
“Disgusting?” I spat out the tea. It was hot. And it wasn’t coffee. I opened the fridge and let the sound of its sticky door and sad hum sway between us. There was Suz vodka and I added it to the tea.
“To have to pretend that Arthur was your dad too”
“And it’s disgusting to watch you try to be an adult”
“I have to hold it in. I have to pretend…”
“Why’s that again?”
“They will kill us”
I thought about it a while, drank, and said, “Okay”
“It’s dangerous dammit. And you have no idea what –”
“I don’t believe that. No one’s watching, or listening, or giving a shit”
“You have no idea what’s really going on. You’re just swept up in jealousy over Mark”
“Oh I’m not jealous of a child Zoe”
“You may be twenty-three but you’re the fucking child. A selfish child”
“Fine. Fuck you. Fuck Arthur. He was a loser who decided to be a comedian at forty, and he tried to be a dad to the younger comedians, but we laughed at him. I laughed at him, and he was still nice to me when it counted but I’m not his son and I don’t care that he’s dead”
She could have hit me. She should have hit me. She didn’t even slump or move. Her skirt flailed in the fake wind just like the curtain. I came to in my bunk again a few hours later feeling more tired than before and wet with the tea and vodka I had rested on my chest before passing out. Mark and Zoe were in the kitchen talking about blueprints and manifesto documents. I pulled my shirt off and walked into the kitchen. They stopped talking and Zoe got up.
“I’m going to the bathroom. Will you get a start on some lunch?”
I don’t know who she was directing it at but I nodded with no intention of cooking.
“Your sister is a special person you know. I think it’s time we were a little more open with each other. I took a risk and I don’t think you quite understand why as yet, so it would benefit us both if we were to talk more”
“If you’re trying to be polite it’s not necessary. I like you Mark. You saved my life so I can put up with your quirks and whatever else it is you think bothers me”
“I want to talk to you about your past life. About what things were like on the surface in general”
“Generally, it was alright. In general, it had its great moments and its cut to the bone wail into the ether horrifying moments”
“See, there it is, that sense of humour. I could never do what you do”
“Look, I’m not going to do a gig here”
“You could at least come to watch! We could say that you used to perform in your old Suz”
“Forget the cover story, I just don’t want it”
I stared at him.
“Well. That’s disappointing but still not what I wanted to talk about. I have never seen the sky, I have never felt true air resting on my skin, I have never tasted sunlight if you can understand… But more than that, you lived in a world with a thousand times the population of our world. You had freedom to travel around the planet as you liked. You had fresh food at your disposal, you obviously had your entertainments, you had a wide range of career opportunities, you had so much knowledge and applied skills. I have to ask, what was it like? What do you remember?”
“You know what I remember? I remember that it was late and I’d spent Thursday night drinking wine by myself, staring at a blinking black line trying to feel something. I watched the film ‘Once’ and replayed the songs until I remembered a girl that I loved and imagined things had worked out. When I was lulling myself to sleep, this girl called me”
“Fate! You think of her and she called”
“No, this was a different girl”
“Oh, I’m confused. What was her name?”
“It doesn’t matter. This one I didn’t love, I wasn’t sure how I felt about her, how I was supposed to feel”
“What does that mean?”
“For one thing we just found out the world was ending”
“I’m sorry. Go on”
“I knew what her call meant and I wasn’t up for it. She kept calling. She sent text messages and I knew she was coked up. I knew what it meant but I answered. She couldn’t hear the sleep or sadness in my voice. I heard her voice rattle out a dull ‘what are you up to’ and the grinding of her jaw made mine tighten but I said nothing and looked at the screen still hearing those sad songs from ‘Once’. The movie is nothing special, but the songs are full of ugly heart. ‘If you have something to say. Say it to me now… Cause this is what you’ve waited for! Your chaaaaaance to even up the scoooorrrrrre!’”
“Ok. Maybe they have the movie in storage. I can find it”
I pressed my fingers hard into my eye, clearing out the yellow sleep gunk and rolling it into a ball to flick onto the floor. Then I looked at my fingers and the grime defining the lines. I lifted them to my nose and breathed in the smell of Roshana. It made my queasy, hollow and lonely.
“Anyway, I put that all aside and brought a bottle of champagne I’d won in a comedy competition to her. I got out of a cab and bought two packs of cigarettes from a corner shop that was the only square of light on a dark, sad street that smelled of rain. She was unfettered by glamour when she opened the door. If that’s a way to put it nicely. There was no perfume in the air, not even a little to cover the sweat. I spilled the drinks pouring them and she held up a plate with lines on it. We joked about the future and what things liked. After 3 hours of that we went to bed to sleep. She made me touch her first. Her skin felt amazing. Seconds later she’d pulled her underwear off and was grabbing me. I remember her mouth as cold soothing me, but her eyes weren’t there and she kicked me out a few hours later”
He was smiling. The bastard. Then Zoe walked in and kicked Mark out without using words. It might have been the look on my face. Or her face.
“Things going cold between you two?”
“Not really” She laughed.
“Did you overhear what we were talking about?”
She nodded. I slouched and smirked faintly. A cockroach flew up from where there was a week-old stain on the floor and landed on the counter. It riffled through some crumbs and jam like an old hobo picking through trash and smiling like nothing else mattered. I twitched with the impulse to walk over and squash it then settled back in my chair. I stared at Zoe with my eyes blurred.
“I’m glad we didn’t have sex” She said.
“I didn’t say I wasn’t”
“You didn’t have a condom”
“I’m fine with it Zoe”
“I had school”
“Ok, wait. I’m sorry. I guess you’ve been wanting to talk about it for a while” She sighed and shrugged her shoulders a little too obviously.
“Let’s do it”
I laughed in her face when she sat down. I walked to the bedroom to get changed and went to work. I had trouble with the door handle and then two minutes later walked back in, grabbed a Uratyn sandwich from the fridge and left again.