by J Williams, Ireland
12 years 9 months and 4 days since the beginning, Event Zero.
5 days since the end of the last event, Event Forty-Three.
Robin’s stomach growled impatiently as she descended the stairs from her apartment to the front door of her building. The light had gone in the stairwell, so she kept one hand on the wall as she stepped downwards, feeling it like a brail map. She realised that she hadn’t eaten in days. In fact, she couldn’t remember when the last time she had eaten was. It could have been before the last Event.
Event Forty-Three was particularly cruel. It lasted for three days. The magnitude and frequency changed with each one. The only thing anyone knew for certain, was that the recovery time between Events was getting shorter, the survivors fewer. There was no way to predict when the next one would come nor what terror it would bring with it.
Event Zero began somewhere on the cusp of the year 2020. A respiratory virus, originating in Asia, invaded every single country in the world. An organisation, since dissolved, known as the W.H.O declared an international pandemic sometime in the Spring, but by then the damage was done – although this was not known at the time. Whole countries shut down and engaged in “lockdowns” in a bid to “push back” the spread of the virus. Robin scoffed in recollection at their foolishness, at their ignorance to the reality of what was actually happening. While governments across the globe bargained to secure ventilators and scientists raced to manufacture a vaccine, Event Zero was changing the course of history, right under their noses. But Event Zero was not the global pandemic, it was the warning that accompanied the pandemic. Covid-19, however, provided the perfect guise under which the Events would begin.
Robin knew she needed to eat soon; she could feel her energy-levels dropping, causing her to shiver uncontrollably. She pulled her coat collar up around her ears and tucked her hands into her pockets. It was strangely cool for a June day in New York. Event Forty-Three had left those it affected writhing in agony for days, nauseated by the ringing in their ears. The Event began sometime in the middle of the night. For those it targeted, Event Forty-Three began simply with an air-raid siren. Five hours later the frequency of the siren began to change. Thirteen hours later it changed again, this time it was the dynamic. It was unbearable, lasting for three days. It wasn’t until the beginning of Day Two that a solution was realised, but by that stage it was too late for some. Government officials pleaded with the public for their help. But once again panic swept across the globe. Robin saw things that she had become all too familiar with. Scores of people threw themselves out of the windows of high-rise buildings. Mothers smothered their screaming children in their beds. Fathers stepped out in front of oncoming traffic.
As she carefully navigated her way through the gloomy, desolate streets of what used to be Manhattan, Robin wondered when and how she had dulled her senses to the atrocities that unfolded in front of her. Event Eighteen, she figured. It was probably around then. She was heading toward an Emergency Aid Pod. The EAPs appeared immediately after each Event. They were stocked with food, water, clothing and information regarding post-Event recovery strategies. The Affected who survived Event Forty-Three moved like zombies in the same direction as Robin. A young mother carried an ashen-faced child in her arms. The mother had not been affected. It was evident that the child had been. Dried blood stained the toddler’s disfigured face, from his attempt to tear his own ears from his head.
Each time, the criteria for the Affected was callously unpredictable, and almost always realised too late.
“June 14th” the young mother muttered, almost inaudibly, as though not to distress the traumatized youngster who clung to her with what little strength he had left.
“What?” replied Robin.
“It was June 14th” the mother repeated “It was a birthday this time…the criterion for the Affected. My boy was born on June 14th 2029. We got him the vaccine on the morning of Day Three, he wouldn’t have survived the third night”.
“Jesus Christ, is…is he going to be OK?”
“He’ll live, if that’s what you’re asking,” she offered, “but I think he might be deaf. He hasn’t said a word since it ended, and he doesn’t respond to me when I speak to him…I’m just grateful that he is alive,” she added quickly, her eyes scanning the area like a nervous bird. And with that she trudged on to join the queue for the EAP.
Robin fell back a bit, not wanting to engage in any more conversation. She wanted to get her EAP pack and head back to her apartment. The day had a dull, eerie feel to it and though the sky was cloudless, she noted that its usually dazzling azure seemed faded, like it was missing pigment. She needed to get some work done today before she began her Event analysis. Event analyses would be taking place in the household of every archivist across the world over the next few days. They began after Event Twenty-Two, if Robin was remembering correctly. Yes, it was definitely Twenty-Two, the Event that wiped out 80% of Europe, and the last of her remaining relatives.
After grabbing her EAP pack, Robin hastily made her way back to her apartment, observing to herself about the strange dullness of the day. She needed to work on her report. Her work at the Capsule archive began after Event Thirty-Two. She hated it, but then again it was better than some of the other assigned jobs. When she was a child, she dreamed about becoming a teacher or maybe a zookeeper. She alternated between the two for most of her childhood, continuously musing which was the best fit. Never would she have imagined herself becoming a Capsule archivist, mostly because that job didn’t exist when she used to dream of her future. Now, however, teachers and zookeepers no longer existed. The whole world functioned as an online platform. Pay-scales no longer mattered, because currency didn’t exist. People were assigned jobs based on The Lottery system. SATs, GCSEs and Leaving Certificates were the gateway exams of the past. There was no longer any need for gateway exams because there was nowhere to go anymore. The schools and colleges and institutes that once existed now functioned either as emergency Event response centres or mortuaries. The dreams of millions were washed away over time, with the passing of each Event. The younger generation knew not how to dream, their thoughts circled like vultures around one thing only, survival.
After she had bolted the door of her apartment behind her, Robin began to unload the EAP pack, hastily putting everything in its assigned place in her storage room. She was annoyed because her swipe card wouldn’t work on the front door and she spent fifteen minutes buzzing for the maintenance guy to come down and let her in. The pack yielded a six pack of water cartons – plastic had been banned after the Event Nineteen, the event which saw millions of people poisoned one scorching July afternoon. Fifteen packets of powdered gruel, misleadingly entitled “Food Supplement” spilled out of Robin’s rucksack, followed by the Recovery Information Pack, the gallows humour in the acronym not lost on anybody. Food and water were still available to purchase…online of course. Originally there were fears over food shortages which led to waves of panic-buying and stockpiling after and during each Event. But as it turned out, with the massive decline in the world’s population, food supplies remained consistent. The panic-buying and stockpiling had ceased though. The lesson about greed and excess was a hard one to learn, but it was learned and would never be forgotten. That was Event Twenty-Five.
She locked up the room again and grabbed her laptop to begin this week’s archival report, to be uploaded to the Capsule before midnight. She hit the light switch with her elbow as she headed towards the couch. As an archivist, Robin was tasked with documenting the occurrences in her sector each week and uploading them to the Capsule for analysis. On the weeks when there was no Event the work was simple. She would observe day-to-day life, keeping a keen eye out for any irregularities. Since the world was now fully functioning online, the majority of the observations she made were of drones and autonomous vehicles making their supply deliveries to households in her sector and walkers, joggers and runners taking to the streets after working hours in an attempt to keep their hearts healthy. It wasn’t that people were not allowed outside. There were some rules that had to be adhered to, but freedom of movement still existed. People had the option to socialise in small groups, to take their kids to the park or to visit non-virtual supermarkets. But the effects of Event Zero were still being felt nearly thirteen years on. Fear had infiltrated the minds of millions, and as a result the world had become almost fully virtual.
Robin rubbed her eyes and adjusted the brightness on her laptop. This week’s report would be more laborious to write. The post-Event reports followed a strict format, the purpose of which was to assist the Event analysts in determining the cause and effect of the Event. The analysts worked tirelessly, becoming the new characterisation of “Front Line Staff”. The world was no longer just reacting to the Events, it was now trying to pre-empt them. Algorithms were tested day after day. Hypotheses posed. Philosophies offered. Projections explored. None of it worked. The sporadic commencement of the Events was as unpredictable as the rationale and criteria for the Affected. Robin mused over this fact as she clicked away on the keyboard of her laptop, writing what she felt was an absolutely pointless report. But she would write the report anyway. That was the macabre lesson Event Twenty-Seven gifted the world – accountability. Life in 2032 could be described very simply – recovering from an Event, living in fear trying to figure out why, where or when the next Event would occur, and eventually, if you were lucky (because luck was all that it was), surviving the next Event.
“Affected Criterion: Those biologically born on June 14th”. Robin stared at the laptop screen in what might have been disbelief, had she not become so detached. One day later. If it had been June 15th, Robin may have ceased to exist. And almost as quickly as the thought formed in her mind, it dissipated again. What did pique her intrigue though was the word “biological”. She carefully filed that thought somewhere in the back of her mind to be unpacked later, on a discussion forum she co-ran with another Capsule archivist. Though it wasn’t illegal to discuss Capsule reports, this forum certainly wasn’t something she openly advertised. In the old days, Robin thought with a smirk, they might have been referred to as conspiracy theorists. Upon reflection she changed her mind, they would probably be more anti-conspiracy theorists, as the basis of most of their discussion in the forum encompassed what they knew for definite leaving the theoretical work to the analysts and scientists. As she stood up to stretch, she permitted herself a chuckle at the irony. She wandered over to the window rolling her neck in an attempt to relieve some of the tension that permanently resided at the top of her spine. It was getting dark, although it hadn’t really brightened up all day, she thought. She looked down at her smart watch and was surprised to see it was only 4:30. She wandered into the kitchen, grabbed a carton of water from the fridge and upon her return, switched on her reading lamp and continued writing her report.
The things that they knew for definite were far outweighed by the things that they didn’t. Event analysis had proven that each Event was a global experience. Every country in the world felt the effects of each Event, though not always to the same extent. For example, while Event Twenty-Two wiped out most of the population of Europe, the rest of the world reported only minor casualties. They also knew that the aftermath of every Event changed the course and means of human existence. The realisations, though they were certainly being ascertained more rapidly with each Event, still came too late. The post-Event press releases pinpointed all the things the human race did wrong during the Event. It originated with the inability to socially distance effectively. Later on, the years of resistance to climate change action would erupt in the faces of humankind. And of course, one of the most memorable in Robin’s mind, was the absence of compassion during Event Fifteen where the reality of White Privilege reared its ugly head once again, confirming that the bonds of the recently coined “universal family” were easily broken by the temptation of individual survival. The digressions were always realised. But the realisation was always too late. The Events insidiously chipped away at humankind, making a grotesque mosaic of its failings.
Over time the world began to accept that some of the more pertinent questions were unanswerable and it was likely they would remain this way. Why is this happening? Who or what is doing this? Are the Events acts of God or Gods? Aliens perhaps? For years the theories were analysed from every angle, until eventually simple acceptance became the only thing that seemed logical. For Robin, acceptance took a lot longer to succumb to. Event Eighteen ignited a fire in her heart which drove her to find answers. She could not nor would not accept the prospect of not knowing why. But through the years, each time an answer seemed within her grasp it was cruelly debunked, and she found herself back in the same boat as the rest of the world – out at sea, once again united in ignorance. The explanation that she favoured most was that climate change was ultimately responsible and the tormented earth was reacting violently to its maltreatment.
Her report was taking an unusual amount of time to upload. Frustrated, Robin pulled down the screen of her laptop. With the light of the screen gone, she noticed how dark the room had become even with the overhead light and the lamp turned on. She reminded herself to order some new light bulbs when she logged back on. Popping a pre-packed dinner into the oven, she sauntered into her room and began undressing. She turned on the shower in her tiny en suite and wandered back into her room to find a fresh towel. Returning to the en suite, she stepped into the shower and shrieked as the cold water streamed down her back. She spun around to adjust the temperature and stared quizzically at the dial, which was sitting where it usually did, midway between scorching hot and unbearable. She pushed the dial towards its maximum setting and stood out of the stream of water. A few minutes later the water had warmed up and she ducked back under the flow and washed the day’s stresses from her body.
Although it was mid-June, she reached down into her drawer and pulled out her favourite fleecy pyjamas. She shivered as she dropped the towel and clambered into her nightwear. She checked her watch again. The forum would be active within a few minutes, so she grabbed her hoody and headed back towards the kitchen. While dumping the contents of the pre-packed dinner on to a plate, she began thinking about the ashen-faced boy and his mother. She had included her interaction with the young mother in her report. The Capsule required that all post-Event interactions between archivists and the Affected were documented, verbatim. Shovelling a forkful of rice into her mouth, she pulled back open the screen of her laptop. She stopped dead, opened her mouth and allowed the cold rice to spill back out. Did she forget to turn on the oven, she questioned. No, she definitely turned it on because she knew she had just switched it off. For some reason, the food on her plate was cold. She didn’t have time to reheat it nor to question it, so she threw the plate into the sink and pulled a banana from the fruit bowl and wolfed it down. The forum was about to begin.
The discussion that night began with posts remembering several of its members who had the misfortune to be born in different years, on June 14th. The members listed, as they always did, the things that they knew. The Event was, of course a global one. The details were still emerging regarding the death and survivor tolls. Theories over where the noise came from were shut down by several members of the forum, reminding the newbies that this was not the place for speculation.
Robin shuddered and pulled her legs in to her chest for warmth. She leaned over and put her hand to the radiator to see if there was any residual heat left in it from earlier. Nothing. As she retreated back into her original position, the bulb in her little reading lamp flickered once or twice, and then extinguished. The bulbs, she remembered. She logged out of the forum and onto the virtual supermarket, and quickly placed her order. Her delivery would arrive by the morning. She threw her head back on the couch and shut her eyes momentarily. When she opened them again it took her a minute to adjust to the dimness of the room. Grabbing another carton of water from the fridge, she moved, almost somnambulant, towards her bed. She set her smart watch for 8am and lay in the darkness, counted backwards from two-hundred and waited for sleep to take her.
Robin’s smartwatch pulsed four times before it died. It was enough to wake her. Before opening her eyes, she took a few deep breaths and tried to drag the memory of their faces to the front of her mind. With every passing year they faded just a little bit more, like old photographs. She opened her eyes. Nothing. She stopped breathing for a few seconds. Her room was in complete darkness. She went to check her watch to make sure she hadn’t set it for 4am or something stupid, but it was dead. Her phone, which had been charging under her pillow was the same. Bolting into an upright position she cast her eyes around the room to try and find something familiar, but everything was in pitch darkness. She fumbled across the bed, frantically trying to find the light switch. Furiously flicking it on resulted in nothing. Cold sweat trickled down her back. Carefully she rolled out of the bed, outstretched her arms and took a few clumsy steps towards the window…that’s when she heard it. The screaming. She found the clasp on the window and threw it open. Everything was in complete darkness. There was no sky. No sun. No streetlights. No traffic lights. Nothing. It was freezing cold. She wondered if this was a direct reaction by the earth to prolonged and extreme global heating. Terror was rippling through the emptiness. She couldn’t see it, but she could hear it and she could feel it. She was no longer sure were her eyes open or closed. Everything was blank. The panic filled screams crescendoed up along the street leading to what she could only describe as a cacophony of realisation. Event Forty-Four, the last Event, had begun.