The knock came at the door at three in the morning. It was soft and patient, more of a tapping than anything else. It took Darren twenty minutes to get from his bed to the door. In between, there was a lifetime of dread, paralysis, fear. His first instinct was to stay in bed, but he knew that no matter how long he stayed in bed, be it minutes, hours, or years, it would not matter; the knocker would persist, waiting patiently, inhaling softly and exhaling barely anything at all.
He padded quietly across the room, throwing on clothes at random: a black cotton shirt, denim jeans, a pair of ratty sneakers. There was a strange taste in the back of his throat, copper and slime and something older, dark and musty. He tried to swallow past it, his throat jumping up and down several times, but it remained tenaciously.
“Just a second!” he called out to the continued tapping at his door. “I’m coming, you woke me up!” It was a lie, Darren had been awake for hours. This had been coming since the beginning. He knew it and everyone knew it. He’d seen it described as a comet, discovered out in deep space but on an inexorable course toward you. It might be slow, or it’s inertia might drive it at it’s full potential speed toward you, but eventually it would catch up with you. You could live your life as normally as you could under the circumstances – hard options, these days – but you knew that out there was a ball of ice and rock hurtling through space, and you were in it’s path, regardless of what you did.
Eventually, you’d be awoken by the knock at the door.
“I’m coming!” he cried desperately, his voice catching on the foul taste in his throat. He threw the door open and in that moment realized that he must look utterly insane: dishevelled, sweating, panting, and possessed of a strange glare in his exhausted eyes.
On the other side, to his surprise, was a human being. He was unremarkable – dark hair, even features, no facial hair, average height – but held himself with squared shoulders and a certain quiet dignity. He gave a small, professional smile when he saw Darren, and gave no indication that he found anything out of the ordinary with Darren’s appearance.
“Darren Daniels?” the man asked. His voice was brisk and even, the sort of voice that one would expect from the front desk clerk of a large hotel.
“I am,” Darren replied. A small, smouldering glow of hope had lodged in his solar plexus, and he searched his brain for an alternate reason that this man would be standing here. Was he selling something? Making a small delivery? His brain spun to try to justify the man’s presence at his door as being something other than the obvious.
“My name is Eric Andrews. I’ve come to take you to your Meeting,” the man said, and those words extinguished that fledgling glow with brutal efficiency. “Are you prepared, or do you need a few minutes?”
“But you’re...” Darren began, and trailed off. Eric’s smile turned upward in small amusement.
“I have already had my Meeting, Mr. Daniels, and I was hired by the Commission to bring people such as yourself to Meetings as serenely as possible.” Eric held out his hands with palms facing upward. “Please, Mr. Daniels. You are very afraid right now, and you don’t need to be. You will come to no physical harm in this process. Take my hands.”
Darren extended his hands reluctantly, and as his palms hovered over Eric's he felt a surge of sharp, visceral fear run through his stomach and his spine.
“Shh,” Eric soothed him. Their palms made contact and Darren felt an instant injection of calmness flow from his hands along his nervous system to the rest of his body. A rush of images welled up in his head. Sunset over palm trees on a still white beach that seemed to stretch on forever. The slow crawl of the waves as they lapped at that impossibly smooth sand. A slight breeze, carrying with it the scent of jasmine. Citrus. The curl of the beach over his toes. His eyes closed and the exhaustion that had been held as potential in his muscles released itself in a torrent. His legs buckled and Eric moved to grab Darren’s wrists, keeping him upright.
“Relax, Mr. Daniels,” Eric said. “We have a small trip to make, but I’ll help you through it.” Darren, slumping, tried to respond, but he was overcome and unconscious before the inchoate impulse of meaning coalesced into meaningful words.
# # #
They were in a vehicle, travelling at high speed along a freeway in the jet black of the pre-dawn world. The only light came from the soft glow of the dashboard; the vehicle flew on through the darkness without headlights. Darren was sitting in the front seat of the vehicle, slouched down in an uncomfortable fashion. Eric sat in the seat to his left, leaned back and reading something on a barely luminous tablet.
“Welcome back,” Eric said without looking over. “You’re more relaxed than you were.”
Darren said nothing in return, but the fear and anxiety that had gripped him had, at the least, faded far into the background. He watched the ghosts of objects approach and fade through the windshield.
“I’m afraid that I wasn’t entirely honest with you,” Eric said. He swiped his finger along the screen of his tablet and a new block of text appeared faintly on it. "I wasn't quite hired by the Commission, in the old sense of the word. They made a need known, and I volunteered to fill that need. There isn't any money changing hands. I'm not being paid. I want you to understand that."
Darren looked at the man and studied him. He was relaxed, as completely as Darren had ever seen anyone. Whatever was on his tablet was dense, and Darren could only pick out the odd word here and there.
"Why do you do it then?" Darren asked. Eric gave a slight smile, and from it's precision Darren got the impression that it was a luxury he only allowed himself occasionally.
"It is it's own reward," Eric responded, and he put an oddly heavy emphasis on the final word.
The car, an independent actor in a separate narrative, turned into the right lane of the highway and adjusted itself to take the next exit. The change in speed sent panic chasing up Darren's spine and his hand gripped the door handle with urgency.
"Stay calm," Eric said, flipping to the next page. "It's a waste of time to worry about something you cannot have any effect on."
"God," Darren spat, "what do they do to you in these meetings?"
"They fix you," Eric said, and the car took another turn, deeper into the city.
The waiting room was stark, and Darren's distracted thought process coughed up the term "proto-Soviet". The walls were that strange institutional beige that is really more of an aged yellow; the furniture was workmanlike, although not cheaply made. A television was mounted to one corner, and a 24-hour cable news station played in an endless stream of murmured life. A woman sat placidly behind a glass panel, typing at random intervals and reading something thoughtfully from her monitor. Besides Darren, the only other person in waiting in the room was an aging gentleman in a crisp suit that looked as though it had been tailor-made for him the day before. This person, to whom Darren had not yet been introduced, sat hunched forward on a brisk couch on the opposite wall from where Darren sat. The man's hands worked endlessly, fingers touching fingers, tracing lines on palms, and stroking a thumb in a jarringly sensuous fashion. Occasionally the man would reach over, take a tattered magazine from the pile on the table next to him, select a page at random, tear it out, and proceed to tear the page into strips of roughly equal size.
Eric had brought him up to the building, which bore no signs or indications as to what it's purpose had been prior to it's present usage. The walls seemed a little dilapidated, the hallways a trifle unswept, and Darren doubted that it had been a well-cared for building even before everything began. There was no obvious security at the doors, or even lurking menacingly around the grounds. Until Eric had brought him to the waiting room, in fact, they had encountered no other living being. Once at the waiting room, Eric had conferred with the woman behind the glass for a moment, and then had gestured for Darren to take a seat. After a final word with the receptionist, he had left, and Darren had been set adrift with only the nervous page-shredding man for silent company.
There were no magazines or pamphlets near Darren; the only collection in the entire waiting room seemed to be the one next to where the paper-shredding man was sitting. He fidgeted and adjusted, trying to find a comfortable position in which he could just stare into space and wait for whatever was coming. The chair seemed designed specifically to prevent this, however; the seat was just on the wrong side of being too narrow, and the back came up to an awkward position on his back. The arm rests were slick and provided no real place for his hands to grip on to. Adrenaline raced down his thighs and left a billowing ache in the side of his neck. His foot tapped to a subconscious beat and even though his ankle quickly began to complain he couldn’t stop. He looked across at the paper-shredding man and felt an ugly twinge of envy. At least that man was doing something that was productive, in it’s own way. Darren was only wearing himself out before the battle began.
“Why am I even here?” the shredder cried out suddenly, and Darren looked up. The man’s voice seemed on the verge of breaking, as though he was going to drop the torn-up magazine and begin sobbing uncontrollably. The man wasn’t looking at Darren – he was, in fact, staring down at his immaculately polished Italian loafers – but since Darren was the only other person actually in the waiting room he assumed the question was for him.
“You’re here for a meeting with the Commission too, aren’t you?” he asked. The man looked up, startled, as though he hadn’t realized that Darren had even been there. There was a panicked gape to his expression, a slack-jawed paralysis that Darren would have found hilarious under entirely different circumstances.
“Yes, yes, of course,” the man said finally. He swallowed reflexively a few times, as though regaining the power of speech had been difficult work. “I was summoned this morning. The bastards made building security come with them to my suite, as though I was going to make a scene. As though I were some kind of thug that would throw a fit and assault them.”
“They came for me this morning, too,” Darren confided. The man seemed as though he were on the edge of his mind snapping and for Darren the walls seemed to be closing in simply on the idea of that happening. He put on a calm smile and kept talking. “Knocked on the door, woke me up, dragged me out without even letting me gather up my belongings.”
The man looked at Darren, but Darren got the uncomfortable sensation that he was really looking through Darren. There was a middle-distance stare to the man’s eyes that reminded him of pictures of soldiers who’d seen enough combat to put them into a state of mental shock.
“I wasn’t asleep,” the man said. “I was watching the news when they came. I’d just learned that they’d suspended trading indefinitely. I mean, they suspended trading the day before the war, but I always thought that...now they’re saying that the exchange is down and it might be permanent. The Joint Commission is looking into a whole new system, given what we’ve learned, and it might not require people like me anymore, whatever that means. ‘This might be the end for stock traders in general’ they said. Do you know the one? Dark hair, looks like he gets it cut at Supercuts if he doesn’t get his mama to do it, glasses, that stupid smirk on his face?”
Darren had no idea what the man was talking about and shook his head.
“It doesn’t matter,” the man said, sighing heavily and looking back at his feet. “It doesn’t matter anymore at all. Bastards will probably go communist after this, I’ll bet that’s what this is all leading to. What’s your name, anyway?”
Startled, Darren rattled off his name. It seemed to take the man a moment to process, and when he spoke again his voice was softer.
“Nice to meet you, Darren,” he said, “I’m Matthew. Matthew L. Wenderson, formerly of Larison Investments, for whatever that was worth. Not much, from the looks of it, but there you are.”
“I ran a restaurant,” Darren said, trying to fill in the vacuum of sudden uncomfortable silence. “Nothing fancy, just a chain place, but I was in charge and that was good. Now I’ve been in my apartment for two weeks, just sort of...reading old books and I guess keeping half an eye on the news, such as it is. I missed the suspension of the stock exchange, though.”
Matthew waved a hand dismissively. “They made the announcement in the middle of the night, the sons of bitches. Figured no one would really care. What happened to your restaurant? Was it the riots, or...”
The end of Matthew’s sentence hung in the air between them, an unspoken dread that summed up the state of being of both of them. Did the Commission shut it down? Did they shut down all food serving operations there pending a review and report?
“No, nothing like that,” Darren said. “It...I’m not sure how to put this. It’s still running. You can go on down to Oswald’s Copperpot and get whatever faux-British pub fare you had a hankering for. They’ve changed the name, of course, but it’s still the same place. They even invited me to stick around. I used to go out drinking with them, and I don’t think that they ever thought badly of me, even when...but there was something different between us, after. Like I didn’t belong there. Everyone knew what to do and they got to it. Nobody needed instructions, or coaxing, or coaching, or...I was just a dead weight. Nothing to do. So I left, and I didn’t go back. They didn’t miss me, at least they didn’t call me to find out when I’d be coming back, so...”
“The bastards,” Matthew spat. “The nerve, to think they can take a man’s livelihood, his property, and just...” he trailed off, his anger sputtering out into the waiting room like an impotent engine. “God, the way they treated me,” he began again. “Like I was a common criminal. Worse, really. It was like I was Leopold the Second and they’d finally come for me.”
“Who?” Darren asked.
“Leopold the Second,” Matthew said again. “Once, King of Belgium and all of Belgium’s colonies. That includes the Congo, which was less a colony of Belgium and more of Leopold’s own private preserve. He made the natives grub and mine for a lot of resources, rubber mostly. He gave orders to his people to get the resource extraction rate up by any means necessary. They took this to mean that the lives of the people of the Congo were expendable, and slaughtered them if they didn’t comply. They would cut a man’s hands off if they didn’t bring enough rubber. They would kill a man’s children, all sorts of awful things. They say Leopold’s responsible for the deaths of ten million, maybe more.”
He rose his voice and shouted at the receptionist. “You hear that! THAT’S a REAL criminal, not me! Why don’t you go after the butchers, the ones who make the real decisions, not me!”
If the receptionist heard Matthew from behind her shield of glass, she gave no indication. Matthew waited for a response, and when one didn’t come he slumped his shoulders and looked back to his feet.
“I didn’t fire off the missiles,” he muttered. “I didn’t give those damn orders. No one was happier than me when they intervened. Why do I have to come in front of them? Why me?” He looked up and stared into Darren’s eyes. “Why you?”
“Why any of us?” Darren mused.
“They’re bastards,” Matthew continued, as though he hadn’t heard Darren’s reply. “They’re bastards and they don’t have a clue. They don’t know what we’re like. We never wanted to hurt anyone. That’s not human nature. These bastards don’t know a goddamn thing about us.”
A door opened on the far side of the room from where Darren and Matthew sat. Both of their heads turned to look as though they swivelled on automatic tracks. A woman came through, her lab coat a spotless, just-pressed white, and she pointed to Matthew.
“Mr. Wenderson,” she said, her voice brisk and professional, “the Commission will see you now. Please, follow me.”
Matthew got up quickly, and torn remains of the magazines scattered at his feet.
“Those bastards won’t change a damn thing about me!” he shouted. His hands clenched into fists but remained dangling by his hips. “I won’t talk! I won’t say a goddamn thing! I-“
“Mr. Wenderson, please,” the woman said, with a touch of exasperation. “This is just a preliminary round to assess your status and review the generalities of your case. You don’t have to say a word if you don’t want to.”
The fight seemed to drain out of Matthew immediately, and Darren was reminded of a deflating balloon. Even his hands unclenched and turned back into ordinary hands, long fingers, the skin too dry and cracking around the reddened knuckles.
“Please, Mr. Wenderson,” the woman said again, “we’re on something of a tight schedule. There are many people to see.”
Matthew nodded distractedly and crossed the room to the doorway in which the woman stood. His feet seemed to drag more than lift and drop, and Darren was amazed at how suddenly exhausted the man looked when he arrived at the other side. Before he disappeared down whatever corridor waited on the other side of the door, Matthew turned to look briefly back to Darren. There was a pleading expression on the man’s face that left Darren feeling disturbed long after Matthew had disappeared and the door had swung shut again.
Left to his own thoughts, Darren began to panic in increments. It began in his wrists – a flutter, a strange, strained feeling in the tendon – and then he felt it in his neck. His ankles came next and shortly after he felt a gathering pressure just above his eyebrows. I'm going to pass out he thought. Clasping his hands, he put them between his knees and bowed his head. His heart thudded in his ears, hot and loud, a squalid party he hadn't been invited to and had never wanted to attend.
The last time I felt like this - he cut the thought off with a concerted effort. He envisioned a gigantic block of granite and placed it in his mind; nevertheless, the memory oozed around a series of cracks that his mind, unbidden, created on the edges.
In the backyard, he pulls up some weeds that have managed to hang on through the horrifying drought that the summer had laboured under. He's not really sure why he is doing it, only that he is renting the place in the wake of the divorce and he doesn't want the landlord to think he isn't taking care of the grounds. The sun is beating down, no clouds, not even a whisper of contrails. Later, he would learn that air traffic had been grounded in the wee hours of the morning by order of the Pentagon.
A scream, somewhere down the line of townhouses. His head comes up, trying to pinpoint where it is coming from. It goes on forever and it’s sounding heartbroken, as though someone has died at the person’s feet in a gruesome fashion. His head hurts from it and then he’s walking with determination into the house where it is cool and dark, blessed relief from the onslaught of sun and sound. In the distance comes a siren, low at first and then ramping up into a hoary wail, the muted and far-off match to the person screaming their lungs out in a tiny backyard somewhere down the street. He rubs his forehead in a vain attempt to focus on something other than the sounds but they keep invading and so he drops onto the couch. He turns on the television and flips through channels. He makes it through four before realizing that the same broadcast is on every channel. Most of them, anyway. CNN is broadcasting a seemingly ancient video of a large orchestral band playing “Nearer My God To Thee.”
“MISSILE LAUNCH DETECTED FROM RUSSIA” the caption on most broadcasts reads. The sub-caption is not much more reliving: “Pentagon Unreachable; Several U.S. Officials On Twitter Confirm Multiple Launch Detections At 3:12 PM”. He checks his watch. 3:18. How long does it take an ICBM to enter into the upper atmosphere and crest downward, anyway? There’s a growing pressure forming in his guts and it’s starting to fill his head. His wrists flutter. The veins in his neck throb. He can’t breathe. Everything is ending, he thinks, and I didn’t even get to kiss my kids goodbye. He’s sobbing before he even realizes it, on his feet before a conscious decision to do so even occurs. He stumbles into the kitchen, throwing things out of the way. Glass smashes to the floor and it’s more background noise, more white roar to complement the screaming and the siren and whatever other cacophony is now rising like the tide from the rest of the neighbourhood. A bottle of whiskey comes up to meet his lips like a benediction from a knowing priest. Warm, brown lightning fills his mouth, playing in arcs off his tongue and sliding down his throat. It hits his stomach. It keeps on hitting. Finally, there is silence.
He wakes up on the floor, surrounded by broken glass and the stink of spilled whiskey. His head is screaming and his stomach is stoutly rejecting everything that had been poured into it. There is still a roof over his head. His house is still standing. Is it possible to survive a nuclear war? It’s impossible to think deeper into an answer to that question. Nothing is getting through the sick twilight throb in his head. He drags himself up off the ground, his thighs protesting as though they'd been content to linger on the floor forever. He looks out the kitchen window. The sun is still out, the sky is still wide open and blameless. He walks out into the backyard, stumbling and lurching along the way. The outside world is still whole, the weeds are still poking out of the scuffed barren earth, the supposed garden plots along the edge of his yard that had never grown anything else.
The neighbourhood is silent. The screaming and the siren have both died off. It was a dream. It had to be. A psychotic episode, maybe. He has been under a lot of strain lately. He'd imagined it all, the news broadcasts, the end-of-the-world video, the screams, everything. Too much sun, too much exertion scrabbling in the dirt. He takes comfort in this idea and walks back inside to get some water and lie down.
The television is still on and he drifts over to the couch to watch it. He'd left it on a 24 hour cable news channel that is showing a panel of talking heads arguing passionately with one another. This, too, is comforting, but the caption on their argument is not. ""100% Launch Failure"; Pentagon To Issue Statement." The panel is arguing about what this means: one claims it was a bluff by the Russians; another pounds his fist on the table and insists that mutual launch failure meant that NATO needed to push across the Russian border now and engage in a conventional military assault to eliminate any immediate threat of a successful nuclear launch; a woman in a red dress is arguing over him, saying that her contacts at the White House are indicating that they're in contact with the Kremlin and are trying to sort out a peaceful solution.
The host looks stunned throughout this exchange but as Darren lowers himself onto the couch the host sits up in alarm and puts two fingers to his ear. The host shushes the panel quickly and returns to listening to the feed in his ear. Then he turns to the camera, looks into it quickly, and speaks.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please stand by for the President of the United States."
There is a quick cut and the President stands at the podium in the White House Press Room, the light reflecting off of his white hair. He wastes no time with niceties or formalities.
"My fellow...," he says, and Darren is horrified to hear that the man is nearly in tears. "My fellow Americans. We are not alone."
The panic attack subsides and Darren lifted his head back up. The woman in the spotless white lab coat was standing in the doorway again, looking directly at him.
"Mr. Daniels?" she asked, and he nodded slowly in response. "The Commission will see you now. Please come with me."