It had been a week since the riots had stopped. However, she still heard strange sounds. Sounds of glass breaking, of car alarms, of honking horns, of anarchy, and of carnage. In their climax, the sounds she heard were mostly in her head—Resilient remnants of terrible times. However, more often than not, the sounds were very real.
In the aftermath of the riots, the remaining survivors had taken to the streets. They were jumpy, cautious people in search of food, ammunitions and other survival gear. The worst had passed, yet their hurriedness remained as a monument to their fear.
Alternatively, there were people fully resigned to the reality of their situation, spending their time breaking into jewelry stores. The decaying bodies of angry rioters and unlucky police officers were the silent witnesses to their meaningless crimes. In this new world, a diamond was little more than a shiny rock.
The thought of going outside still terrified her. In her fear, she sought to drown herself in isolation. This was an exercise in futility, as the sound of break-ins always kept her acutely aware of human presence.
Thus, she tried another type of therapy. She cleared out all objects from what used to be her bedroom, until it was nothing but a space enclosed by four walls. After this, she sat cross-legged in the center of her room. It was her intention that, with a muted room and a muted mind, there would be no anchor for her bad thoughts to hold onto, and her anxiety and paranoia would fade away in the overwhelming nothingness.
Unfortunately for her, things did not go according to plan. And this was very much her fault, for she had desperately purged from her subconscious a vital factor needed in her calculations. At nightfall, the object she called “a demonic halo” proceeded to cast the room in a bluish hue, and her space was void no more.
Before things had really escalated, people had taken to calling the objects that floated above their heads as “tags”. Insofar as the form of the objects was concerned, “Tag” was a very suitable epithet. The objects were holographic, rectangular and seemingly fixed. Placards floating above each person’s head. Each of them a different color, each of them denoting a different number.
There in the silence, the bluish glow of her tag brought to her mind an image of a scene that took place days earlier. An image of a man bleeding out on the floor while she hid just a few feet away. And before she knew it, against her will, she began to relive, in its full totality, the chaos.
As the night progressed, the PTSD did its worst. That night she lost consciousness in cold sweat and with trembling hands.
Hours later she was faced with the same conundrum as before. The sun was setting, and with its slow descent upon the horizon came the promise of another episode. Typically, her choice had been to suffer through the night. However, this time, she was leaning towards taking a different decision. This had a lot to do with the fact that her agony had now surpassed her fear.
Naturally, the part of her that had lived through the riots still wanted to remain within the safety of her apartment, but it was dusk, and she wanted to get ahead while it was still light out.
She tried to make as little noise as she could when opening the door, however, due to rusty hinges and deathly silence, her endeavor must have been announced to all the inhabitants of her building, if any remained.
She hesitated after opening the door. Waiting for a sound, for a reaction, for an indication of danger, for the signal to rush back into her room, for the safety of living under circumstances beyond her control, for the safety of her decisions being taken for her.
But no warning came and she was simultaneously disappointed and relieved. In her disappointment, in her relief, her conviction hardened and she began her descent down the stairs.
She stood in front of her building now. It was cold, as she expected, and she tightened her jacket. The street was empty. She estimated that seven out of every ten people must have died in the days before. But three out of ten was still good odds, and she was bound to run into someone sooner or later. She reached into her pocket. The cold touch of the steel of her knife reassured her. Then she began to walk down the street.
A few blocks from her starting point, she reached a newspaper stand. Before the halos appeared, back when things were still normal, she used to pass by this same spot after work, to grab her favourite fashion magazines. She would always give in, against her better judgment, to tabloid celebrity news rather than fitness magazines. She had even developed an acquaintance with the stand’s owner. A middle-aged man named Stanley who had a fetish for Asian porn magazines. Judging by the state of things, he had been caught up in the Helter Skelter days earlier. She didn’t want to think of Stan’s fate. In spite of herself, she began to wonder if he had been trodden by the crowd, knocked down by a car, or shot in the head. The thought of his brains leaking out on a street somewhere made her want to puke.
She reached into the stall and took out a newspaper. One of the last that had been published before everyone lost their minds. The cover story read:
DO YOU THINK YOU MIGHT BE A PIECE OF SHIT?
WORRY NO MORE!
FEBRUARY 20th, 2017.
Ever since the mysterious rectangles appeared over everyone’s heads the whole nation has been going crazy!!! Stocks crashed overnight, unemployment skyrocketed and divorce lawyers just can’t get their phones to stop ringing. The holographic placards seem to follow you wherever you go. If that isn’t disturbing enough, think about the numbers they denote. Numbers which most people are convinced represents value. The best scientific minds are at a loss to an explanation. The Minister of Defence is convinced it’s some kind of terrorist attack and has been locked in a meeting with her advisors since the appearance of the placards. The President is yet to give a public address.
One of the world’s smartest economists and a supporting member of SETI, Dr.Mau Koch, has been seen on TV expressing a professional opinion that the number on a person’s placard is actually the value of the person’s life! Don’t be so quick to denounce the claims though, because thought they may not admit it, people have been reacting to the placards in surprising ways. Some people were denied entry into a club because their numbers were too low. Green energy company, SunFlower, saw their stocks fall after rumours surfaced that their CEO had a two digit number on his tag. Rachel Royce and Michael Sputner, celebrity power couple, have filed for divorce. Insiders suggest that this is due to a large difference between their individual numbers. People are starting to get agitated and people are starting to get scared. Police Reports reveal that some minor “incidents” have also taken place, though no loss of life has been reported yet.
An informant has informed as of impending Martial Law! Stay indoors people and stay safe!
After reading the poorly written article, her mind flashed back to the first appearance of the halos. She had been visiting her parents in the countryside that weekend. That afternoon, she sat in the porch reading, while her next-door neighbors organized a barbecue. The fragrance of flowers in the nearby garden and the odour of burning pork combined beautifully to produce a smell that excited her. A smell which she gobbled up in deep, strong breaths.
That Sunday had been tranquil. Maybe even halcyon. But in retrospect of all the horrible things that proceeded, that day had been nothing but a portent of destruction. Like the soft, cold sea breeze that brings to sailors the scent of salt and memories of home, only to turn out to be the first gale of a coming storm.
She had given in to drowsiness and was descending softly into sleep. To her dismay, her peace was disturbed by voices from the house next door. Voices which were rising in volume. Freaking neanderthals, she thought. She had just decided to ignore them when she heard her sister scream. A sound which jolted her into full awareness.
Later that day, what was supposed to be a special family dinner had degenerated into a heated debate. Of course her father, the family know-it-all, was in full swing. His protracted speech made little sense. As though it was more an attempt to explore the full range of his vocabulary than to provide illumination. He was so raucous, mannerless and totally oblivious to the fact that he was showering everybody in spit. A piece of chicken dangled from his beard. She had always thought him so unevolved. He disgusted her.
“What’s the matter sweetie?” her mother asked. “You haven’t said a word.”
“Nothing Ma, just tired.”
“It’s the government I tell ya! Spying on its own citizens like we’re tadpoles in a fishbowl!” her father went on. Her mother, sister and brother, his awed spectators.
She was tired. Tired of arguing. Of noise. She had hoped this weekend would rejuvenate her after her hectic week at the firm. Yet, trouble had found her yet again.
“It’s nothing Dad,” she barked. “It’s probably some kid’s retarded science project. Geeze! Can’t you shut up just once?”
He looked at her, as if he had just noticed she had been standing there.
Perhaps she should have felt guilty. But all she felt was the satisfaction of having gotten her way.
She might have been foolish. Foolish in not showing more concern. It wasn’t exactly her fault. Her fatigue kept her from giving thoughtful consideration to which she had decided was merely a passing headache. That night, sleep did not come to her easily. The blue glow was already having an effect on her psyche.
The next morning, she said her goodbyes as she prepared to leave. Her father did not take notice of her impending departure. His eyes were glued to the television screen. Frankly, she was surprised he hadn’t wrapped his head in tin foil yet. He was watching the channel five news.
“The Government have released a report saying that the holograms are merely part of a population census. All should remain calm.”
Later, as she was being driven to her house, she wondered if she should have kissed him goodbye. She didn’t dwell on the matter though, as she was soon pondering what she had heard on the news. A population census? This is merely an invasion of privacy. I feel….violated.
To distract herself, she began to read her e-mails.
Moments later, the driver of the truck in front of her car saw a red tag and mistook it as a traffic signal. Her driver, in order to avoid the halted truck, turned sharply to the right. Though he avoided the vehicle, her car turned up on the opposite lane, and before oncoming traffic.
A soft bang drew her out of her reverie. With the onset of awareness came a temporary panic. By standing in the middle of the street, lost in her thoughts, she had advertised her vulnerability. She looked around nervously and then started walking again. Her pace had increased perceptibly.
While walking away she fell back into that same train of thought. It was somehow funny, that she had experienced the apocalypse not as a leading character or a protagonist but from a third person perspective. After the crash, she was hospitalized, and a 15 inch TV had been the window through which she saw the rise of madness and the fall of civilization.
A few feet away from the newspaper stand, she heard another bang. This time, her pace was not the only thing that quickened. Her heart started to pound with an intensity that rattled her cranium.
She could tell that something was coming. The volume of the bang brought her to the awareness of two details. One-Something was approaching. Two-It was approaching fast. Slowly at first, and then with a heightened intensity, she began to hear, a rumbling noise. A deep growl, like thunder, but incipient.
She started to run, but in her panic, she lost her balance and fell hard. The adrenaline flooding her system numbed the pain she had been expecting to just a dull throbbing.
The source of the sound was much closer now. She willed herself to rise but her muscles just would not obey. Despair was taking over now and tears began to flow.
“Quick! Over here!”
She turned and saw that a few feet from her, standing to the side of the road, at the entrance to an alley, was a short man, beckoning.
“Over here, now!” the man said.
She was frozen in place.
The sound grew louder and louder. Closer and closer, it came.
Then, in several quick movements, the man dashed to her location, heaved her to her feet and helped her into the alley.
Moments later, it came thundering past. And she saw that “it” was actually not as abstract as her mind had made it seem, for “It” was actually “they”.
In the relative comfort of the alley, she looked toward the street and saw several men on horseback galloping at full speed.
Hooves collided with tar to create small explosions. And over the sound of that terrifying noise one of the men shouted “WOOOOHOOOOOOOOOOO!”
And as quickly as they had come, they were gone.
“We’re safe now,” the man said.
She said nothing as she was still panting.
“That was some crazy bunch,” the man said. “Damn. I think one of them had a chain of grenades over his chest. Were those assault rifles? Good thing they didn’t see us.
“My name is Errol. What’s yours?”
With subterfuge, she slipped her right hand into her pocket.
“Not much of a talker I see,” Errol continued. “I don’t blame you though. We’ve all changed.”
She turned to look at him. Critically, this time.
He was average in every sense of the word. Except for two distinct features. One, he had a wide scar above his left eye. Judging from the look it must have been recent. Two, his tag glowed a light green. On it was the number 22345.
“We have to get going. Can’t stay here for two long. They might be back. Or worse.”
She wanted to protest, in spite of the fact that he had just saved her. However, with the horsemen in mind, she found herself thinking that he might not exactly be the worst company.
Hesitantly, she followed him.
It had been a day since she had decided to leave her apartment. A day since the crazy horsemen. She was now in what used to be a bar with other survivors. Among them, Errol, his brother and six other people.
Since she followed Errol to this location, she made sure to keep a cautious distance from everyone. She rebuffed all initial attempts at small talk and soon, they all knew not to bother her.
They had spent the previous night in silence. As if they were all in denial of the reality of their situation. As if they did not want to taint their delusions with conversations.
However, this night was looking to be different. Maybe it was the bottle of booze they had shared earlier, but Errol and his brother Siegfried were feeling very chatty.
“Come on Errol, you really think this number above my head isn’t currency?” Siegfried said.
“That’s absolutely ridiculous Sig,” Errol said. “The government said it’s just a population census.”
“The government. Ha,” Siegfried said. “You’re so naïve Errol. None of those fools knew what was going on!”
“Listen here little brother. They say it’s a census yet people all around the world have these tags above their heads. Some people have even been spotted with numbers waaaaaay in the trillions. Even your lady friend there should be proof that the census claim is pure horseshit.”
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
“Then what exactly are these numbers Sig!” Errol barked.
“I really can’t say for sure, little brother,” Errol said. “Everybody seems to have their own opinion. But there are several key pieces of evidence that could inform your own opinion.”
The bar quieted down. Everybody was now listening in on the conversation with an intensity.
Siegfried, who was a natural showman, adjusted to this attention with panache.
He went on, “A friend of mine at the factory had a wife who worked as a janitor at the space agency. He told me that a few days ago, she had stopped going to work. She hadn’t been fired or anything. Apparently, they had discovered something which they absolutely could not risk being leaked to the media.
“Unfortunately all their efforts were futile. A few days after her suspension the channel five news reported that astronomers had discovered an artificial mega-structure lurking behind Jupiter.”
Channel five news, She scoffed. She remembered the news item very well. She was in the hospital, recovering from a foot surgery that day.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Mae, a middle-aged woman, said.
“I kid you not, my lady,” Siegfried said. “Look, I know it all sounds ridiculous. But Mau Koch, you know Mau Koch, right Errol?”
Errol grunted in affirmation.
“Well, anyway, Mau Koch figured the whole thing out,” Errol said. “In an exclusive interview with Richard Shultz, he revealed that the “mega-structure” was actually an alien ship!”
“There’s no such thing as aliens,” she said, speaking for the first time.
They all turned to look at her.
She did not cower at their stares. Rather, she went on, “There’s no such thing as aliens. Channel five news is trash. Other news channels reported that the ‘mega-structure’ was actually a ninth planet just outside the solar system. ”
Siegfried smirked at her and then took a sip of his beer.
“Well Ma’am, you have your beliefs and I have mine,” his tone was so condescending. As if she was nothing other than an ignorant buffoon.
“But Sig,” Mae said, “You can’t possibly expect us to believe that. I mean, come on, aliens.”
Sig smirked again, “some of you are so stupid that you won’t even believe something when it hovers right over your head.”
She felt very insulted and was about to raise her voice when a man said, “I think we’ve exhausted all other rational possibilities.”
She turned and looked. It was the man they called Karl. A former sociology professor.
“I don’t like the sound of aliens any better than any of you do,” Karl said. “It may be absolute bullshit. But when last I checked, no nation in this world possesses such an advanced holography technology.”
He gestured to his tag. “567,768” it said.
“All this time. We have lived under the assumption that humankind is the only race in the universe. This belief stems from the age long evolutionary mechanism of self-centeredness.
“Human beings have an inborn habit to glorify ourselves. Religiously, we are the chosen people. Mortal, flawed and ordained by the gods. Historically, we are the winners, the survivors. The sons and daughters of the kings who did not fall in battle. Scientifically, we are the perfect people. The right combination of genes necessary to thrive and to reproduce.
“But if it turns out we are not alone in the universe, all those beliefs are merely self-comforting lies.”
Siegfried broke the silence first, “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”
“So how do these three elements fit into the narrative?” Errol asked. “First the tags. Then Aliens. And then the carnage.”
“Two elements, my brother,” Siegfried replied. “Just the Tags and the Aliens. The carnage was entirely a construction of human beings.”
“That can’t be right Sig,” Errol said. “After the tags appeared, shit just started going south.”
“Things had been going south way before the tags appeared, Errol,” Karl said. “The tags were merely catalysts. The carnage that followed was the climax of human decadence.”
“It is truly sad,” Karl continued. “Human beings have never been perfect creatures. But the worst thing to happen in the history of human kind is the advent of self-consciousness. Of rational thought.”
“God did not plan on our consciousness developing so well,” she spoke, surprising everyone including herself.
Karl looked at her and smiled. “A line from a poem, if I’m not mistaken? But it’s rather superbly appropriate. Human’s should never have evolved to the point of developing a consciousness.”
“Why,” Errol asked.
“Because with consciousness, our actions were no longer directed by instinct. And we now had the power and free will to defy nature.”
“Well that went on great for us,” Siegfried said, taking another sip.
“I know right!” Karl replied. “Lead-poisoned drinking water, human cloning, carbon emissions, unnatural weather patterns.”
“The atomic bomb,” Errol chimed in.
“The atomic bomb. The apotheosis of it all.”
“You men are being to abstract,” Mae said. “The riots started because people started to believe that these numbers above our head represent the value of a person’s life. That belief was the trigger that upset the social order.”
“And who said they don’t represent value?” Karl said. “What Siegfried said about the space agency isn’t some made up rumor. The mega-structure is not, as they would have us believe, a ninth planet.
“It’s true they found something lurking beyond Jupiter. And its true that it was an alien space ship. Soon after the discovery was made, a probe was sent out. They found the aliens all right, but they were all dead.”
“What?” Siegfried exclaimed.
“The Aliens were all dead.”
“Who killed them?”
“Not who but what. Many astrobiologists and astrochemists believed they were diseased. Who knows, maybe it was some space parasite.”
“This makes absolutely no fucking sense,” she shouted.
“I know. I know it makes no sense,” Karl said. “Before the riots started, one of the popular theories circulating among higher ups was that aliens were actually here to enslave us.
“Some intellectuals thought that numbers on the tags represented our serial numbers. But a conflicting and popular idea was that the numbers represented the value of our lives.”
“What criteria did they use to judge the value of a person’s life?” She snapped. “My number is the highest I’ve seen yet I’m nothing special.”
“I think,” Karl said, “The criteria used is unknown and unknowable. The question itself is a deeply philosophical one, well beyond our tiny minds. Even beggars and junkies have been seen with higher numbers than kings and politicians”
“Why did they even need to display these numbers?” she asked.
“I really don’t know. When you walk into a supermarket how do you determine the price of items?”
“Are you kidding? You think they intended to sell us? To who?”
“I don’t know. To other aliens I suppose.”
“Oh fucking bullshit.”
“Look, I know this is very hard to take in,” Karl said. “This narrative didn’t go exactly how anyone thought it would go.
“The aliens are dead. And their price tags have already catalyzed the collapse of governments. It would be naïve to consider what took place in the last couple of weeks as anything other than an apocalyptic event. The end of the world has come to pass. But instead of a super flu, a volcanic eruption or a meteorite, we were destroyed by an unlikely combination of events.
“It fucking sucks. To be left behind in this senseless world. But we’re here now. And I don’t know about you but I want to live.”
Karl finally stopped speaking and the silence that followed was heavy. Everybody was taking in what he said and everybody was contemplating the future.
She was thinking too. Karl was right. It didn’t matter how the world had ended. Only that it had. Maybe she was lucky to be alive. Maybe she wasn’t. But the long night had come and she had to live through it.
The world had become a cold and dangerous place. Filled with the insane and the fearful. This group was her best chance of survival. Sure, they weren’t perfect. But they were her best shot.
After all, she wanted to live.