Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Break! Break! Break!

The End Is Nigh

This story also appears in THE END IS NIGH, edited by John Joseph Adams & Hugh Howey, which is available now.

Earliest I remember, Daddy threw me off the roof of our split-level house. “Boy’s gotta learn to fall sometime,” he told my mom just before he slung my pants-seat and let go. As I dropped, Dad called out instructions, but they tangled in my ears. I was four or five. My brother caught me one-handed, gave me a spank, and dropped me on the lawn. Then up to the roof for another go round, with my body more slack this time.

From my dad, I learned there were just two kinds of bodies: falling, and falling on fire.

My dad was a stuntman with a left-field resemblance to an actor named Jared Gilmore who’d been in some TV show before I was born, and he’d gotten it in his head Jared was going to be the next big action movie star. My father wanted to be Jared’s personal stunt double and “prosthetic acting device,” but Jared never responded to the letters, emails, and websites, and Dad got a smidge persistent, which led to some restraining orders and blacklisting. Now he was stuck in the boonies doing stunts for TV movies about people who survive accidents. My mama did data entry to cover the rest of the rent. My dad was determined that my brother Holman and I would know the difference between a real and a fake punch, and how to roll with either kind.

My life was pretty boring until I went to school. School was so great! Slippery just-waxed hallways, dodgeball, sandboxplosions, bullies with big elbows, food fights. Food fights! If I could have gone to school for twenty hours a day, I would have signed up. No, twenty-three! I only ever really needed one hour of sleep per day. I didn’t know who I was and why I was here until I went to school. And did I mention authority figures? School had authority figures! It was so great!

I love authority figures. I never get tired of pulling when they push, or pushing when they pull. In school, grown-ups were always telling me to write on the board, and then I’d fall down or drop the eraser down my pants by mistake, or misunderstand and knock over a pile of giant molecules. Erasers are comedy gold! I was kind of a hyper kid. They tried giving me ritalin ritalin ritalin ritalin riiiitaliiiiin, but I was one of the kids who only gets more hyper-hyper on that stuff. Falling, in the seconds between up and down—you know what’s going on. People say something is as easy as falling off a log, but really it’s easy to fall off anything. Really, try it. Falling rules!

Bullies learned there was no point in trying to fuck me up, because I would fuck myself up faster than they could keep up with. They tried to trip me up in the hallways, and it was just an excuse for a massive set piece involving mops, stray book bags, audio/video carts, and skateboards. Limbs flailing, up and down trading places, ten fingers of mayhem. Crude stuff. I barely had a sense of composition. Every night until 3 a.m., I sucked up another stack of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, or Jackie Chan movies on the ancient laptop my parents didn’t know I had, hiding under my quilt. Safety Last!

Ricky Artesian took me as a personal challenge. A huge guy with a beachball jaw—he put a kid in the hospital for a month in fifth grade for saying anybody who didn’t ace this one chemistry quiz had to be a moron. Sometime after that, Ricky stepped to me with a Sharpie in the locker room and slashed at my arms and ribcage, marking the bones he wanted to break. Then he walked away, leaving the whole school whispering, “Ricky Sharpied Rock Manning!”

I hid when I didn’t have class, and when school ended, I ran home three miles to avoid the bus. I figured Ricky would try to get me in an enclosed space where I couldn’t duck and weave, so I stayed wide open. If I needed the toilet, I swung into the stall through a ventilator shaft and got out the same way, so nobody saw me enter or leave. The whole time in the airshaft, my heart cascaded. This went on for months, and my whole life became not letting Ricky Artesian mangle me.

One day I got careless and went out to the playground with the other kids during recess, because some teacher was looking. I tried to watch for trouble, but a giant hand swooped down from the swing set and hauled me up. I dangled a moment, then the hand let me fall to the sand. I fell on my back and started to get up, but Ricky told me not to move. For some reason, I did what he said, even though I saw twenty-seven easy ways out of that jungle-gym cage, and then Ricky stood over me. He told me again to hold still, then brought one boot down hard on the long bone of my upper arm, a clean snap—my reward for staying put. “Finally got that kid to quit hopping,” I heard him say as he walked across the playground. Once my arm healed up, I became a crazy frog again, and Ricky didn’t bother me.

Apart from that one stretch, my social life at school was ideal. People cheered for me but never tried to talk to me—it was the best of human interaction without any of the pitfalls. Ostracism, adulation: flipsides! They freed me to orchestrate gang wars and alien invasions in my head, whenever I didn’t have so many eyes on me. Years passed, and my mom tried to get me into dance classes, while my dad struggled to get me to take falling down seriously, the way my big brother did. Holman was spending every waking moment prepping for the Army, which was his own more socially acceptable way of rebelling against Dad.

• • •

Sally Hamster threw a brick at my head. I’d barely noticed the new girl in my class, except she was tall for a seventh grader and had big Popeye arms. I felt the brick coming before I heard it, then people shouting. Maybe Sally just wanted to get suspended, maybe she was reaching out. The brick grazed my head, but I was already moving with it, forward into a knot of basketball players, spinning and sliding. Afterward I had a lump on my head but I swore I’d thrown the brick at myself. By then the principal would have believed almost anything of me.

I didn’t get the reference to those weird Krazy Kat comics about the brick-throwing mouse until years later, but Sally and I became best friends thanks to a shared love of hilarious pain. We sketched lunch-trolley incidents and car pile-ups in our heads, talking them out during recess, trading text messages in class, instant messaging at home. The two of us snuck out to the Winn-Dixie parking lot and Sally drilled me for hours on that Jackie Chan move where the shopping trolley rolls at him and he swings inside it through the flap, then jumps out the top.

I didn’t know martial arts, but I practiced not being run over by a shopping cart over and over. We went to the big mall off I-40 and got ourselves banned from the sporting goods store and the Walmart, trying to stage the best accidents. Sally shouted instructions: “Duck! Jump! Now do that thing where your top half goes left and your bottom half goes right!” She’d throw dry goods, or roll barrels at me, and then shout, “Wait, wait, wait, go!” Sally got it in her head I should be able to do the splits, so she bent my legs as far apart as they would go and then sat on my crotch until I screamed, every day for a couple months.

The Hamster family had social aspirations, all about Sally going to Harvard and not hanging out with boys with dyslexic arms and legs. I went over to their house a few times, and it was full of Buddhas and Virgin Marys, and Mrs. Hamster baked us rugelachs and made punch, all the while telling me it must be So Interesting to be the class clown but how Sally needed to laser-beam in on her studies. My own parents weren’t too thrilled about all my school trouble, and why couldn’t I be more like Holman, training like crazy for his military future?

• • •

High school freshman year, and Sally got hold of a video cam. One of her jag-tooth techno-hippie uncles. I got used to her being one-eyed, filming all the time, and editing on the fly with her mom’s hyperbook. Our first movie went online at Yourstuff a month after she got the camera. It was five minutes long, and it was called The Thighcycle Beef, which was a joke on some Italian movie Sally had seen. She had a Thighcycle, one of those bikes which goes nowhere with a lying odometer. She figured we could light it on fire and then shove it off a cliff with me riding it, which sounded good to me.

I never flashed on the whole plot of The Thighcycle Beef, but there were ninja dogs and exploding donuts and things. Like most of our early short films, it was a mixture of live-action and Zap!mation. Sally figured her mom would never miss the Thighcycle, which had sat in the darkest basement corner for a year or so.

We did one big sequence of me pedaling on the Thighcycle with Sally throwing rocks at me, which she would turn into throwing stars in post-production. I had to pedal and duck, pedal while hanging off the back wheel, pedal side-saddle, pedal with my hands while hanging off the handlebars, etc. I climbed a tree in the Hamsters’ front yard and Sally hoisted the Thighcycle so I could pull it up there with me. Then I climbed on and “rode” the Thighcycle down from the treetop, pedaling frantically the whole way down as if I could make it fly. (She was going to make it fly in post.) The Thighcycle didn’t pedal so good after that, but Sally convinced me I was only sprained because I could scrunch all my fingers and toes, and I didn’t lose consciousness for that long.

We were going to film the climax at a sea cliff a few miles away, but Sally’s ride fell through. In the end, she settled for launching me off the tool shed with the Thighcycle on fire. She provided a big pile of leaves for me to fall onto when I fell off the cycle, since I already had all those sprains. I missed the leaf pile, but the flaming Thighcycle didn’t, and things went somewhat amiss, although we were able to salvage some of the tool shed thanks to Sally having the garden hose ready. She was amazingly safety-minded.

After that, Sally’s parents wanted twice as hard for her not to see me. I had to lie and tell my parents I’d sprained my whole body beating up a bunch of people who deserved it. My brother had to carry stuff for me while I was on crutches, which took away from his training time. He kept running ahead of me with my junk, lecturing me about his conspiracy theories about the Pan-Asiatic Ecumen, and how they were flooding the United States with drugs to destabilize our country and steal our water, and I couldn’t get out of earshot.

But all of my sprains were worth it, because The Thighcycle Beef blew up the Internet. The finished product was half animation, with weird messages like “NUMCHUK SPITTING TIME!” flashing on the screen in-between shots, but the wacky stunts definitely helped. She even turned the tool shed into a cliff, although she also used the footage of the tool shed fire elsewhere. People two or three times our age downloaded it to their phones and watched it at work. Sally showed me the emails, tweets, and Yangars—we were famous!

• • •

I found out you can have compound sprains just like fractures, and you have to eat a lot of ice cream and watch television while you recuperate. My mom let me monopolize the living room sofa, knitted blanket over my legs and Formica tray in my lap as I watched cartoons.

My mom wanted to watch the news—the water crisis and the debt crisis were freaking her shit. I wanted to catch the Sammo Hung marathon, but she kept changing to CNN, people tearing shopping malls apart with their bare hands in Florida, office windows shattering in Baltimore, buses on fire. And shots of emaciated people in the formerly nice part of Brooklyn, laying in heaps with tubes in their arms, to leave a vein permanently open for the next hit.

Did I mention ice cream? I got three flavors, or five if you count Neapolitan as three separate flavors, like all right-thinking people everywhere.

I went back to school after a week off, and the Thighcycle had a posse. Ricky—arm-cracking Ricky Artesian—came up to me and said our movie rocked his freaking head. He also said something about people like me having our value, which I didn’t pay much attention to at the time. I saw one older kid in the hallway with a Flaming Thighcycle T-shirt, which I never saw any royalties for.

Sally snuck out to meet me at the Starbucks near school and we toasted with frosty mochas. Her round face looked sunburned, and her hair was a shade less mouse than usual.

“That was just the dry run,” she said. “Next time, we’re going to make a statement. Maybe we can go out to the landfill and get a hundred busted TVs and drop them on you.”

I vetoed the rain of TVs. I wanted to do a roller disco movie because I’d just watched Xanadu.

We posted on looking for roller-disco extras, and a hundred kids and a few creepy grown-ups hit us back. We had to be super selective, and mostly only took people who had their own skates. But Sally still wanted to have old televisions in there because of her Artistic Vision, so she got hold of a dozen fucked old screens and laid them out for us to skate over while they all showed the same footage of Richard Simmons. We had to jump over beach balls and duck under old power cords and stuff. I envisioned it being the saga of skate-fighters who were trying to bring the last remaining copy of the U.S. Constitution to the federal government in exile, which was hiding out in a bunker under a Chikken Hut. We filmed a lot of it at an actual Chikken Hut that had closed down near the Oceanview Mall. I wanted it to be a love story, but we didn’t have a female lead, and also Sally never wanted to do love stories. I showed her Harold Lloyd movies, but it made no difference.

Sally got hooked on Yangar fame. She had a thousand Yangar friends, crazy testimonials, and imitators from Pakistan, and it all went to her head. We had to do what the people on the Internet wanted us to do, even when they couldn’t agree. They wanted more explosions, more costumes, and cute Zap!mation icons, funny catchphrases. At fifteen, Sally breathed market research. I wanted pathos and chaos!

• • •

Ricky and some other kids found the school metal detectors missed anything plastic, ceramic, wood, or bone, and soon they had weapons strapped all over. Ricky was one of the first to wear the red bandana around his neck, and everyone knew he was on his way. He shattered Mr. MacLennan’s jaw, my geography teacher, right in front of our whole grade in the hallway. Slow-time, a careful spectacle, to the point where Ricky let the onlookers arrange ourselves from shortest in front to tallest in back. Mr. MacLennan lying there looking up at Ricky, trying to assert, while we all shouted, “Break! Break! Break! Break!” and finally Ricky lifted a baseball bat, and I heard a loud crack. Mr. MacLennan couldn’t say anything about it afterward, even if he could have talked, because of that red bandana.

Sally listened to the police scanner, sometimes even in the classroom, because she wanted to be there right after a looting or a credit riot. Not that these things happened too often in Alvington, our little coastal resort city. But one time, Sally got wind that a Target near downtown had gone crazy. The manager had announced layoffs and the staff just started trashing the place, and the customers joined in. Sally came to my math class and told Mr. Pope I’d been called to the principal’s, and then told me to grab my bag of filming crap and get on my bike. What if we got there and the looters were still going? I asked. But Sally said looting was not a time-consuming process, and the crucial thing was to get there between the looting and everything being chained up. So we got there and sneaked past the few cops buddying in the parking lot, so Sally could get a few minutes of me falling under trashed sporting goods and jumping over clothing racks. She’d gotten so good at filming with one hand and throwing with the other! Really nobody ever realized she was the coordinated one of the two of us. Then the cops chased us away.

My brother got his draft notice and couldn’t imagine such luck. He’d sweated getting into the Army for years, and now they weren’t even waiting for him to sign up. I knew my own draft notice was probably just a year or two down the line, maybe even sooner. They kept lowering the age.

My mom’s talk shows were full of people saying we had to stop the flow of drugs into our country, even if we had to defoliate half the planet. If we could just stop the drugs, then we could fix our other problems, easy. The problem was, the Pan-Asiatic Ecumen or whoever was planting these drugs were too clever for us, and they had gotten hold of genetically-engineered strains that could grow anywhere and had 900 times the potency of regular junk. We tried using drones to burn down all their fields, but they just relocated their “gardens” to heavily populated areas, and soon it was block-by-block urban warfare in a dozen slums all around Eurasia. Soldiers were fitted with cheap mass-produced HUDs that made the whole thing look like a first-person shooter from 40 years ago. Some people said the Pan-Asiatic Ecumen didn’t actually exist, but then how else did you explain the state we were in?

• • •

Sally fell in love with a robot guy named Raine, and suddenly he had to be big in every movie. She found him painted silver on Main Street, his arms and legs moving all blocky and jerky, and she thought he had the extra touch we needed. In our movies, he played Castle the Pacifist Fighting Droid, but in real life he clutched Sally’s heart in his cold, unbreakable metal fist. He tried to nice up to me, but I saw through him. He was just using Sally for the Yangar fame. I’d never been in love, because I was waiting for the silent-movie love: big eyes and violins, chattering without sound, pure. Nobody had loved right since 1926.

Ricky Artesian came up to me in the cafeteria early on in eleventh grade. He’d gotten so he could loom over and around everybody. I was eating with Sally, Raine, and a few other film geeks, and Ricky told me to come with him. My first thought was, whatever truce we’d made over my arm-bone was over and gone, and I was going to be fragments of me. But Ricky just wanted to talk in the boy’s room. Everyone else cleared out, so it was just the two of us and the wet TP clinging to the tiles. The air was sour.

“Your movies, they’re cool,” he said. I started to explain they were also Sally’s, but he hand-slashed. “My people.” He gestured at the red bandana. “We’re going to take it all down. They’ve lied to us, you know. It’s all fucked, and we’re taking it down.”

I nodded, not so much in agreement, but because I’d heard it before.

“We want you to make some movies for us. Explaining what we’re about.”

I told him I’d have to ask Sally, and he whatevered, and didn’t want to listen to how she was the brains, even though anyone looking at both of us could tell she was the brains. Ricky said if I helped him, he’d help me. We were both almost draft-age, and I would be a morning snack to the military exoskeletons. I’d seen No Time For Sergeants—seventeen times—so I figured I knew all about basic training, but Ricky said I’d be toast. Holman had been telling me the same thing, when he wasn’t trying to beat me up. So Ricky offered to get me disqualified from the Army, or get me under some protection during training.

When I told Sally about Ricky’s offer, the first thing she did was ask Raine what he thought. Raine wasn’t a robot that day, which caught me off-guard. He was just a sandy-haired, flag-eared, skinny guy, a year or so older than us. We sat in a seaside gazebo/pagoda where Sally thought she could film some explosions. Raine said propaganda was bad, but also could Ricky get him out of the Army as well as me? I wasn’t sure. Sally didn’t want me to die, but artistic integrity, you know.

The propaganda versus artistic integrity thing I wasn’t sure about. How was making a movie for Ricky worse than pandering to our fans on Yourstuff and Yangar? And look, my dad fed and housed Holman and me by arranging tragic accidents for cable TV movies where people nursed each other back to health and fell in love. Was my dad a propagandist because he fed people sponge cake when the whole world was flying apart?

Sally said fine, shut up, we’ll do it if you just stop lecturing us. I asked Ricky and he said yes, neither Raine nor I would have to die if we made him a movie.

This was the first time we ever shot more footage than we used. I hadn’t understood how that could happen. You set things up, boom! you knocked them over and hoped the camera was running, and then you moved on somewhere else. Life was short, so if you got something on film, you used it! But for the red bandana movie we shot literally hundreds of hours of footage to make one short film. Okay, not literally hundreds of hours. But a few.

Raine didn’t want to be the Man, or the Old Order, or the Failure of Democracy, and I said tough shit. Somebody had to, plus he was older and a robot. He and Sally shot a ton of stuff where they humanized his character and explained how he thought he was doing the right thing, but we didn’t use any of it in the final version.

Meanwhile, I wore the red bandana and breakdanced under a rain of buzz saws that were really some field hockey sticks we’d borrowed. I also wanted to humanize my character by showing how he only donned the red bandana to impress a beautiful florist, played by Mary from my English class.

After a few weeks’ filming, we started to wonder if maybe we should have had a script. “We never needed one before,” Sally grumbled. She was pissed about doing this movie, and I was pissed that she kept humanizing her boyfriend behind my back. You don’t humanize a robot! That’s why he’s a robot instead of a human!

Holman came back from basic training, and couldn’t wait to show us the scar behind his left ear where they’d given him a socket that his HUD would plug into. It looked like the knot of a rotten tree, crusted with dried gunk and with a pulsating wetness at its core. It wasn’t as though they would be able to remote-control you or anything, Holman said—more like, sometimes in a complicated mixed-target urban environment, you might hesitate to engage for a few crucial split seconds and the people monitoring the situation remotely might need to guide your decision-making. So to speak.

Holman seemed happy for the first time ever, almost stoned, as he talked us through all the crazy changes he’d gone through in A.N.V.I.L. training and how he’d learned to breathe mud and spit bullets. Holman was bursting with rumors about all the next-generation weapons that were coming down the pike, like sonic bursts and smart bullets.

Ricky kept asking to see the rushes of our movie, and Raine got his draft notice, and we didn’t know how the movie was supposed to end. I’d never seen any real propaganda before. I wanted it to end with Raine crushing me under his shiny boot, but Sally said it should end with me shooting out of a cannon (which we’d make in Zap!mation) into the Man’s stronghold (which was the crumbling Chikken Hut) and then everything would blow up. Raine wanted the movie to end with his character and mine joining forces against the real enemy, the Pan-Asiatic drug lords, but Sally and I both vetoed that.

In the end, we filmed like ten different endings and then mashed them all up. Then we added several Zap!mation-only characters, and lots of messages on the screen like, “TONGUE-SAURUS!” and “OUTRAGEOUS BUSTAGE!” My favorite set piece involved me trying to make an ice cream sundae on top of a funeral hearse going one hundred mph, while Sally threw rocks at me. (I forget what we turned the rocks into, after.) There was some plot reason I had to make a sundae on top of a hearse, but we borrowed an actual hearse from this guy Raine knew who worked at a funeral home, and it actually drove one hundred mph on the cliff-side road, with Sally and Raine driving alongside in Raine’s old Prius. I was scooping ice cream with one hand and squirting fudge with the other, and then Sally beaned me in the leg and I nearly fell off the sea cliff, but at the last minute I caught one of the hearse’s rails and pulled myself back up, still clutching the full ice cream scoop in the other hand. With ice cream, all things are possible.

The final movie clocked in at twelve minutes, way, way longer than any of our previous efforts. It was like an attention-span final exam. We showed it to Ricky in Tanner High’s computer room, on a bombed-out old Mac. I kept stabbing his arm, pointing out good parts like the whole projectile rabies bit and the razor-flower-arranging duel that Raine and I get into toward the end.

Ricky seemed to hope that if he spun in his chair and then looked back at the screen, this would be a different movie. Sometimes he would close his eyes, bounce, and reopen them, then frown because it was still the same crappy movie.

By the time the credits rolled, Ricky seemed to have decided something. He stood up and smiled, and thanked us for our great support for the movement, and started for the door before we could even show him the “blooper reel” at the end. I asked him about our draft survival deal, and he acted as if he had no clue what we were talking about. Sally, Raine, and I had voluntarily made this movie because of our fervent support of the red bandana and all it stood for. We could post the movie online, or not, it was up to us, but it had nothing to do with Ricky either way. It was weird seeing Ricky act so weaselly and calculating, like he’d become a politician all of a sudden. The only time I saw a hint of the old Ricky was when he said he’d use our spines as weed-whackers if we gave any hint that he’d told us to make that movie.

The blooper reel fizzed on the screen, unnoticed, while Raine, Sally, and I stared at each other. “So this means I have to die after all?” Raine said in his robotic stating-the-obvious voice. Sally didn’t want to post our movie on the Internet, even after all the work we’d put into it, because of the red-bandana thing. People would think we’d joined the movement. Raine thought we should post it online, and maybe Ricky would still help us. I didn’t want to waste all that work—couldn’t we use Zap!mation to turn the bandana into, say, a big snake? Or a dog collar? But Sally said you can’t separate a work of art from the intentions behind it. I’d never had any artistic intentions in my life, and didn’t want to start having them now, especially not retroactively. First we didn’t use all our footage, and then there was talk of scripts, and now we had intentions. Even if Raine hadn’t been scheduled to go die soon, it was pretty obvious we were done.

I tried telling Raine that he might be okay, the Pan-Asiatic Ecumen could surrender any time now and they might call off the draft. Or—and here was an idea that I thought had a lot of promise—Raine could work the whole “robot” thing and pretend the draft didn’t apply to him because he wasn’t a person, but Sally told me to shut the fuck up. Sally kept jumping up and down, cursing the air and hitting things, and she threatened to kick the shit out of Ricky. Raine just sat there slump-headed, saying it wasn’t the end of the world, maybe. We could take Raine’s ancient Prius, load it up, and run for Canada, except what would we do there?

We were getting the occasional email from Holman, but then we realized it had been a month since the last one. And then two months. We started wondering if he’d been declared A.U.T.U.—and in that case, if we would ever officially find out what had happened to him.

• • •

A few days before Raine was supposed to report for death school, there was going to be a huge anti-war protest in Raleigh, and so we drove all the way there with crunchy bars and big bottles of grape sprocket juice, so we’d be sugared up for peace. We heard all the voices and drums before we saw the crowd, then there was a spicy smell and we saw people of twenty different genders and religions waving signs and pumping the air and chanting old-school style about what we wanted and when we wanted it. A platoon of bored cops in riot gear stood off to the side. We found parking a couple blocks away from the crowd, then tried to find a cranny to slip into with our signs. We were looking around at all the other objectors, not smiling but cheering, and then I spotted Ricky a dozen yards away in the middle of a lesbian posse. And a few feet away from him, another big neckless angry guy. I started seeing them everywhere, dotted throughout the crowd. They weren’t wearing the bandanas; they were blending in until they got some kind of signal.

I grabbed Sally’s arm. “Hey, we have to get out of here.”

“What the fuck are you talking about? We just got here!”

I pulled at her. It was hard to hear each other with all the bullhorns and loudspeakers, and the chanting. “Come on! Grab Raine, this is about to go crazy. I’ll make a distraction.”

“It’s always about you making a distraction! Can’t you just stop for a minute? Why don’t you just grow the fuck up? I’m so sick of your bullshit. They’re going to kill Raine, and you don’t even care!” I’d never seen Sally’s eyes so small, her face so red.

“Sally, look over there, it’s Ricky. What’s he doing here?”

“What are you talking about?”

I tried to pull both of them at once, but the ground had gotten soddy from so many protestor boots, and I slipped and fell into the dirt. Sally screamed at me to stop clowning around for once, and then one of the ISO punks stepped on my leg by mistake, then landed on top of me, and the crowd was jostling the punk as well as me, so we couldn’t untangle ourselves. Someone else stepped on my hand.

I rolled away from the punk and sprang upright just as the first gunshot sounded. I couldn’t tell who was firing, or at what, but it sounded nearby. Everyone in the crowd shouted without slogans this time and I went down again with boots in my face. I saw a leg that looked like Sally’s and I tried to grab for her. More shots, and police bullhorns calling for us to surrender. Forget getting out of there, we had to stay down even if they trampled us. I kept seeing Sally’s feet but I couldn’t reach her. Then a silver shoe almost stepped on my face. I stared at the bright laces a second, then grabbed at Raine’s silvery ankle, but he wouldn’t go down because the crowd held him up. I got upright and came face-to-shiny-face with Raine. “Listen to me,” I screamed over another rash of gunfire. “We have to get Sally, and then we have to—”

Raine’s head exploded. Silver turned red, and my mouth was suddenly full of something warm and dark-tasting, and then several people fleeing in opposite directions crashed into me and I swallowed. I swallowed and doubled over as the crowd smashed into me, and I forced myself not to vomit because I needed to be able to breathe. Then the crowd pushed me down again and my last thought before I blacked out was that with this many extras, all we really needed would be a crane and a few dozen skateboards and we could have had a really cool set piece.

Enjoyed this story? Check out THE END IS NIGH, volume one of The Apocalypse Triptych. THE END IS NIGH is an all-original anthology of “pre-apocalypse” stories, in which this story first appeared. It is edited by John Joseph Adams & Hugh Howey, and features never-before-published stories by Hugh Howey, Paolo Bacigalupi, Seanan McGuire, Nancy Kress, Scott Sigler, Ken Liu, and many others.

The End Is Nigh

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Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders, Photo Credit: Sarah Deragon/Portraits to the People

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of Victories Greater than Death and its sequel, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak (out April 2022). Her previous books include All the Birds in the Sky and The City in the Middle of the Night. She’s also the author of a short story collection called Even Greater Mistakes, and a book about how to use creative writing to get through hard times called Never Say You Can’t Survive. She co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz.