Escape Pod 869: Excuse Me, This Is My Apocalypse
Excuse Me, This Is My Apocalypse
by Amy Johnson
It was a glorious day when she finally made it to the beach and fell to her knees, into sand unexpectedly soft and warm, and beheld the devastation. The sun smiled and the air danced with spindrift and in the water lay broken shipping cranes, gathered by the ocean’s currents into a jumbled breakwater, one atop another, too many pieces to know how many cranes had once stood intact. In their harbor bobbed the hulls of overturned ships, still buoyant with air long dead, enormous stepping stones, their way now lost.
She had tried to prepare herself for the desolation of this moment. But her preparations hadn’t worked. They never did. With each new discovery of emptiness and destruction, the truth of her aloneness hit her fresh. For as far as her eyes could see, there was no one. And there would be no one, no human, at least, to leave footprints on this sand, to taste the ocean’s salt in their mouth, no one but her. She let her anger, stiff and distant and enormous, unfurl, welcomed its magnificent warmth. She was the last of her kind—
Was that a guy in a bright orange t-shirt?
It was. He gave a big, cheerful flap of a wave and ambled toward her, marring the sand with his footsteps. “Hi!”
“Do you mind?” she said. “I’d like to be alone.”
“Great place.” He beamed at her. “Your server?”
She let go of the words she’d been about to say and stood, brushing the sand from her knees. “Thanks, yeah. Been working on it for a while now.”
“I can tell. Superb design.”
“What is it, an island paradise?”
“Post-apocalyptic United States,” she muttered.
“Tip of my tongue, I so almost went with that, should’ve trusted my instincts.”
“This is a last survivor scenario.” She looked at him meaningly.
“Oh my god, hello, love me a last survivor scenario! I feel myself in the role, you know? So juicy. I’m Jamil, by the way. Oh but you can see that already, it’s your server.”
She didn’t have the name overlay feature turned on, hadn’t expected to need it, still didn’t. “Look, I’d like to be alone.”
“Right, got it, no problem. I’ll just, um—”
From between two lush pine trees, up where the beach turned to land and a forest began, emerged a man. He descended to the beach, squinted to the left, squinted to the right, squinted at the wreckage in the ocean. “What the hell’s this supposed to be?”
“Post-apocalypse!” chirped Jamil. “Beautiful, huh?”
The man shaded his eyes and squinted back the direction he’d come. Beyond the forest rose what had once been a thriving city, smoke from its ruined buildings still smudging the skyline. “That’s supposed to be Boston? Why’s it so far inland?”
“Climate crisis,” offered Jamil.
“No. No. No.” Crankypants shook his head with each rejection. “Seawater levels are rising not falling. If anything, Boston will be flooded.” His gaze shifted to the boulders that marked the line between shore and land. “A gecko? Geckos don’t live in New England.”
“That’s climate crisis.” Jamil clucked knowingly from the side of his mouth and pointed a finger somewhere between Crankypants and the brilliant sky, as if the two of them had just solved a great puzzle together.
Crankypants frowned. “You can’t just pick and choose.”
“It doesn’t have to be literal, it’s VR, that’s its beauty. It’s symbolic.”
“Who made this place anyway?”
And that was more than enough of that.
“Get out.” She glared, mostly at Crankypants, a little at Jamil.
Crankypants turned to her. “It’s a public server, I have every right to be here.”
She gave him the long cool glance she used to scald colleagues who tried to dump their work on her. “Get out or I will kick you out.”
Jamil stepped between them. “Oh, hey, man, this is her last survivor scenario, we’re totally persona non grata, you know what I mean?” But Crankypants just stood there, indignant and swelling, until Jamil got a little too close to him, and then he stepped back, and then Jamil was herding him down the beach and away. Jamil switched to walking backwards so that he could speak with her. “We’ll be over there, so quiet, very quiet, it’ll be like we’re not even here.” He flashed her a surreptitious thumbs up, mouthed, “I got you,” and spun back around.
Not even ten steps further, Crankypants stopped to point at the sand and complain.
Her jaw clenched. Frustration, her always companion, jumped inside her. She considered just kicking them out—it was her server after all, she held ultimate authority over everything and everyone. If it had been just Crankypants, she probably would have. But Jamil seemed nice. Confused, but nice. And the ejection process was a pain in the ass. And she’d come here to be with her feelings, to embrace deferred rage and reconnect with herself, not to deal with other people’s crap. How had they even found the server? She’d set it to public but unlisted, the cheap version of private. She gave a mental shrug. She didn’t warn them about the water, though. They were gatecrashers, they could learn for themselves.
She put them at her back and contemplated the world in front of her. At the horizon, past the scalloped lace of several smaller beaches, jutted a rocky promontory. On that promontory stood the skeleton of a half-collapsed house, made small by distance. She started to walk.
The wind picked up as she walked, rolling in with the waves and blowing away sounds behind her. She walked close to the tide’s white lip, on sand made firm by moisture. Bits of plastic swirled in the shallow water, shards of unimportant objects created to be unnecessarily durable, their once bright hues softened by salt and sun and tumble. A few abandoned the ocean for the sand, the tide retreating from them with small trails of bubbles. Slowly her shoulders relaxed. The collapsed house waxed bigger.
When the house grew big enough that she could see fire had caused its collapse, but was still far enough away that the many hues of charcoal all looked the same, she stopped to admire her footprints. The curves of the bare soles were lovely. No feet other than hers would ever touch this sand. She licked wind-thick lips, tasted salt.
“So, in Ireland there’ve always been a lot of ghosts, right? Well, a few decades back all of the sudden ghost sightings went down. Like, plummeted.”
The voices, young and tender, came from behind a large plastic statue of a purple elephant, wedged sideways in the sand, the mascot of some long since destroyed company that had traveled the oceans to breach on this shore. First those other two, now some kids. Had some asshole put her server on a public list?
“I know, right? Not good, not good at all. So they did this study. And they discovered that signals from mobiles were interfering with manifestations.”
“What did they do?”
“What could they do?” the first said, a slight roughness in her voice suggesting they’d been talking for hours. “So what I’m thinking is, what about VR?”
“You’re thinking VR interferes with ghosts?” breathed the other.
“Not exactly. Ghosts are basically just souls, right? No bodies. Maybe they have a score to settle, maybe they’re lost on the way to their next thing, whatever. Point is, no bodies. People don’t realize it, but tech nowadays reaches all the way to our souls. Like here. In servers, we’re basically all soul. So those barriers between people in meatspace? In servers they disappear. Or at least get much, much thinner. Here we can touch each other’s true souls—we can connect soul to soul.”
There was silence then, long enough for her to stop listening and start feeling guilty for eavesdropping, unintentional and well within her rights though it was—it was her server, damn it—long enough to become annoyed at herself for feeling guilty, long enough to wonder if the two had gone, and then, finally, long enough that she stepped around the elephant’s stiff back legs to see what there was to see: two teenagers snuggled against the scratched purple belly, kissing.
They yelped when they saw her. One whacked her head backward into the elephant’s belly with a resounding clunk.
“Excuse you.” The Earnest Admirer recovered first. “Have you ever heard of respecting people’s privacy?” But the pair’s hands, interlaced, trembled and she felt like a monster.
“Creeper,” muttered the Big Thinker.
That was just too much. “I’m not creeping. This is my server. How did you get here? Are you two even old enough to be in servers on your own?”
“Methinks she doth protest too much,” said the Earnest Admirer to the Big Thinker, as if she were the first person to have ever thought of applying the quote to a real-life interaction. The Big Thinker glowed with admiration.
She let out a wordless yell of frustration and the girls glared and clasped each other’s hands so tightly their knuckles paled. She was boiling point mad now, far madder, she knew, than adolescent rudeness deserved. She stomped back down the beach, back the way she’d come. She turned and yelled, “Don’t go in the ocean.”
She switched on her sense of users and where they were located, annoyed that she had to switch it on, to have it sit blurry in her awareness, nagging at her for attention. She was even more annoyed to discover that Jamil and Crankypants were not only still there, but had been joined by five more people, all about three kilometers away. She was so annoyed that she didn’t stomp all the way to them, she just sliced two kilometers from the beach in between and stuck it in the server’s temporary bin for automatic reversion later. The act of modifying her design even just temporarily—the feeling that she had to—that annoyed her too, so she stomped the rest of the way, her rage mounting as the sand fought her. Back she went, to the beach where she’d first encountered Jamil and Crankypants, empty now but for footprints and two geckos, and then on to a small inlet beyond, where she found a beach volleyball game in progress.
Jamil lounged against a rock, watching the game. He scrambled to his feet when he spotted her. “Hi, hey! How’s it going?” He pointed two-handed to the game. “Folks wanted to play, it’s such a beautiful beach. I told everyone to keep it as close to what you designed as possible, small alterations only.”
As if that somehow made them less rude for barging into her server uninvited. And anyway, it was just basic good manners not to alter someone else’s server without permission, even though server defaults—which of course she’d never changed because she never invited or even intended to invite anyone to join her, this was a last survivor scenario—gave visitors a minor and temporary manipulation permission. Which explained why right now a tall, broad woman, braids bundled thick against her back, a necklace that clearly belonged with a suit and not her current t-shirt, was preparing to serve a volleyball-sized rock over a net strung of seaweed. Beyond the game, Crankypants and a stranger peered curiously into a tidal pool.
“You all need to leave.”
“Right, well, um.”
She imagined exploding the volleyball-rock into a thousand pieces, stone shrapnel pelting down, the volleyball players cowering in the sand, Crankypants and his tidal buddy slipping, falling, unconscious, maybe a smear of blood on the rocks mixing with seawater, Jamil, ducking and fleeing…
The volleyball-rock shot over the seaweed net; a pony-tailed player stretched for it, reached, missed it by fingertips—plunk! It landed just inside the wobbly lines of the court.
“Ooh, well done!” called the pony-tailed player.
The casual, uncomplicated niceness of the compliment chased her vision of destruction away. She wasn’t mad at the volleyball players or Jamil or even Crankypants. The rage was still there, it hadn’t diminished, but it had lost its direction and now swarmed inside her thick and fast but unable to settle and mad with that too.
“You know what? You stay, I’ll go.”
“Uh, about that?” Jamil looked concerned.
“It’s fine.” She called up the server menu, girded herself for reentry, for the onslaught of everything, and tapped EXIT.
The sunlight, polished bright by sand and water, didn’t dim. The enthusiastic grunts of the volleyball players didn’t soften. The scents of brine and rotting seaweed, of wet rock and empty shells scraping against each other, didn’t thin and disappear. She didn’t feel the neural link grow heavy against her neck. Didn’t feel the cling of business casual to her skin. Didn’t feel the burden of email and notifications and messages and voicemails and to-do lists and unfinished projects and answers not yet given and demands and doubts and people waiting on her. Didn’t, in fact, feel a change.
She tapped EXIT again. Perhaps she had tapped it too lightly the first time, perhaps her mental command had been too tentative. But it hadn’t been, she knew that even as she tapped it. No change. And then she tapped it again, more firmly, punched it really, if you can punch with your mind, and still—nothing. Furious now, she tapped ESCAPE. She didn’t like ESCAPE, ESCAPE yielded double vision, thrust you half in a server, half out. ESCAPE made her head ache and left her melancholy, the comparison between the two different realities too vivid to witness at the same time, leaving her unsatisfied by both. Nothing. She punched EXIT again, in the angry certainty that something must have changed in the interim since she’d last punched it, even though nothing had changed, because sometimes tech just did change, no matter how much everyone pretended that wasn’t the way tech worked. Nothing.
She triggered a refresh, which seemed to go through, although she wasn’t sure, couldn’t be sure, tried again. No exit, no escape. Which left only a hard reset, not ideal, it would lose her today’s changes and kick everyone out of the server—that she didn’t mind—no double vision but also no gentle transition. But she was in the grips of it now, this was a battle in a longstanding war that she was perpetually losing but fighting anyway, because not fighting wasn’t an option, there were no opportunities to surrender or sue for peace, life was about living gracefully with repeated defeat and she was not, had not ever achieved grace. A small uncertain voice inside suggested she wait, let this blow over, but she ignored it, executed the hard reset—
Unable to process your request. Try again later.
“Um,” said Jamil unhappily.
“What?” she snapped.
“Ron and I tried to leave earlier, but, well, we couldn’t.”
She glared at him.
“Then they showed up—” he nodded to the volleyball players “—and they couldn’t leave either. That’s why they decided to play volleyball.”
“The service must be down. For maintenance or something.”
“But then why would folks be able to arrive but not leave?”
Further down the beach a man shimmered into presence. She’d never bothered to set visuals for arrival/departure—there’d never been anyone else to see them, she’d never wanted there to be—so the man emerged from a quasi–transporter beam, the system default. He was tall and gangly, in his early twenties, in shorts and a tank top, and had a keg strapped to his back.
“Heyyyyyya!” he called. “Happiness has arrived.”
“Break!” shouted the volleyball player with the braids and the professional jewelry, and the player in the turquoise bandanna, who had been about to spike the rock-ball, caught it instead and tucked it beneath his arm and they gathered around. The beer bearer distributed red plastic cups, flicked the tap, and started to fill the first outstretched cup.
She selected EXIT and nothing happened and then ESCAPE and nothing happened and then EXIT once more, just to be sure, and nothing happened and so she strode over, the sand pushing away, feeling the resistance burn in her thighs.
The beer bearer handed her and Jamil cups and a grin. “Right with you, friends.”
The pony-tailed volleyball player took a long drink, licked away a foamy mustache, and pointed her face to the sun. “Did humanity even exist before kegs on legs?”
“How did you get here?”
“What’s that?” The beer hit the side of her cup urgent and heavy.
“System’s down for maintenance,” explained Jamil.
“Is it? Sucks.”
“How did you get here?”
The beer bearer thought. “I don’t remember. Where is here?”
“Were you in another server? You must’ve been, right?” She gestured to the keg apparatus.
“Yeah, probably, I like to server hop, it’s fun to meet new people, and you’re always welcome when you bring beer.”
“I wasn’t,” said the volleyball player in the turquoise bandana.
“You brought beer somewhere and weren’t welcome?”
The volleyball player laughed. “Nah, I wasn’t in another server. I was at home.”
Crankypants and his new friend moved down the rocks closer to the water, teetering and slipping and catching themselves as they bent to inspect a new tidal pool. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a flash of silvered movement.
“You were at home?”
“Yeah. My system was all fired up but I got distracted by the news.” They all stared at him. “Uh, the new BTS single just dropped?”
Behind Crankypants a glistening silver head rose from the ocean water, large as a trashcan, and unspooled a long pink tongue that lassoed through the air light-fast, wrapped around Crankypants, and snapped him to its maw.
The volleyball players shrieked, Jamil shrieked, the beer bearer shrieked, Crankypants’s friend shrieked, and Crankypants shrieked, but only briefly, because his shriek quickly became garbled and then stopped as the thing disappeared beneath the water. She watched carefully.
“Was that a dragon?”
“It’s a frog,” she said crossly. “Obviously.”
“Frogs survive in salt water?” murmured one volleyball player to another.
“Frogs come in that size?” said the other.
“Uh, should you maybe do something about that?” asked Jamil.
She flapped at him to hold on.
Behind her she heard running and the two teenagers stumbled onto the beach, panting. “What happened?”
“A giant silver frog monster thing just popped out of the ocean and swallowed this guy—” began the pony-tailed volleyball player helpfully.
A large bubble rose from the waters where Crankypants had disappeared.
And then the bubble erupted, with a stench that made everyone wrench their heads back and squeal with disgust. A second bubble, larger still, lumbered to the surface, popped, and, amidst a great blossom of mucus that slicked across the water, out came Crankypants.
“Damn,” she muttered, less about Crankypants’s return and more for the fact that he wasn’t automatically ejected from the server as he should have been. But also a little about his return.
Crankypants staggered out of the water, his tidal pool friend rushing to support him, and up the beach to her. He glistened and shook with the rage of the partially digested. “What the hell’s wrong with you?!”
“Look,” she said, knowing it was unfair but not caring, “if you weren’t okay with being swallowed, you should’ve stayed farther away from the water.”
“How exactly,” he said, “was I supposed to know that there are man-eating frogs in the ocean?” His voice screeched up at the end. “That thing was too large to even be in such shallow water. And frogs don’t live in salt water.”
“It’s a mutant frog,” she said defensively. “It lives wherever it wants to live. And it’s been exposed to radiation, it can shift its size.”
“So what, this apocalypse is supposed to be both post-nuclear and post-climate? You couldn’t make up your mind?”
“Oh, is this a post-apocalypse situation?” said the beer bearer. “I thought it was a beach party. I gotta say, I like it, you’ve got a real nice positive vibe going on—most post-apocalypses I’ve seen are much less friendly.”
“I’m an enrolled member of the Mashpee Wampanoag,” said the Earnest Admirer. “Everywhere in the US has always been post-apocalypse.”
“Apocalypse is relational,” agreed the Big Thinker.
“This,” she ground out, “is a multicausal apocalypse. Problems intersect and feed each other.”
“That doesn’t explain enormous killer frogs.”
“They’re cathartic,” she said. “The intensity of the pain helps you open up and process other intense feelings.”
“It wasn’t cathartic! It wasn’t cathartic at all!”
“Um, boss?” Jamil walked up to her and she realized then that everyone else had edged away. The beer bearer was quietly going the long route around the back of Jamil to offer Crankypants a beer.
“Well, I thought I would see if I could find any commonalities in all of us, something that might explain why us.” He swirled his hand to encompass everyone on the beach.
“The four of us who arrived first, we’re all based in Boston—”
“We’re in Medford,” corrected the Earnest Admirer.
“Right, sorry about that, thanks for catching me, the greater Boston metropolitan area. Fair enough?”
The teenagers nodded.
“And then the next five all came from Worcester, and last but not least, our keggy friend came from Providence. It’s, well, an unusually tight geographic distribution for a server.”
“You’re thinking, what, something happened in New England?”
Jamil nodded energetically. “A blackout, maybe. Or an earthquake. Or an earthquake that caused a blackout. Or a blackout that caused an earthquake? No, maybe not. Or maybe—” he glanced at the two teenagers “—something.”
The Big Thinker rolled her eyes. “It’s obvious what happened.” Everyone turned toward her, except Crankypants who was trying and failing to wipe mucus from his arms and his tidal pool buddy who had just realized she was also now bedecked in mucus. “I bet it was a terrorist attack, an active shooter would be too small.” They stared at her. “We’re dead,” she said impatiently. “Anyone who wasn’t connected, well, their souls went to whatever eternities or reincarnation cycles or whatever they signed up for. And we got stuck here.”
The rage that had been straining inside burst free. It was magnificent. It covered her in heat, a sudden, glorious heat that rushed to the tips of her toes, her fingers, her nose. The heat brought energy, so much energy that she shook with the intensity of its power. It pulled at her, its intensity almost too much, and she thrilled in anticipation, until at last it was too much, or at least too much to be contained, and she raised her hands to the sky, fingers crabbed with power, opened her mouth wide, and yelled.
The others, the interlopers, covered their ears, and for a moment she considered making the sand beneath their feet drop them, spill over their heads and hold them there, maybe with the tiniest, most perfect of air holes, the tide smoothing away their footprints forever. But such beautiful rage wasn’t to be fired shamefully at others or hidden from, it was to be embraced. She let it burn in her skin as she shifted server time, as she thrust the others out of sync, slowed them so they couldn’t interrupt her. She reveled in the way its fire made her tremble. And then, burning, she marched up the beach and into the forest. There she made a thicket. But the thicket wasn’t quite what she wanted and so she changed the thicket into a clearing and then the clearing into a stretch of bare earth. That seemed right, so she broke a branch from a bush that had grown from the thicket era, changed the branch into a spade, and started digging.
The ground was moist against her knees and each time she thwacked the spade into it the impact reverberated through her arm and fresh-turned soil perfumed the air. It was good but still not quite enough, so she snapped another branch from the obliging bush and joined it to the spade—she’d always preferred building in stages rather than wholesale—and made that a full shovel, and she thrust the shovel into the ground, stepping her weight onto its edge so it sank, satisfyingly, and then lifted it free and tossed the soil to the side. And the rhythm of thrust-sink-lift, thrust-sink-lift spoke to the energy that pulsed inside her, and she upped her action speed until she lived and moved faster than time so that she might enjoy it even more.
By the time she had dug out a cellar she knew the cellar belonged to a stone tower, and so she shrank her shovel into a masonry trowel and she grew handfuls of dirt into stones and mortar and then she hefted and set and sealed stones into a tight circle around the cellar, building from the outside in. She built a wall unbroken by door or windows, and when she stopped to contemplate it, its smooth wholeness felt both right and called for more, and so she built until she could no longer peer over the wall at all, until she was stretching stones up above her head to set them, shifting their weight from heavy to light to heavy.
But she wanted more. The rage inside her loved this tower, rejoiced at it, she hadn’t felt so much herself since creating the frogs. And so she pulled a twig from her hair and stuck it in the ground not far from the smooth tower wall and she coaxed it to grow gently sideways and up, its trunk wide and steady as a platform, to bear her as she laid another story of stones and then another. And the tree wound around the tower and the column of the tower grew wider as it became taller, like the horn of a trumpet or the blossom of a flower, and the tree grew with it, until she built the very last story and directed the trunk to grow wide and flat all around, so that a person could lay on it and study the stars, and then she released her hold and let its green-tipped branches shoot up and out as they pleased. She capped the tower with a small hat of a roof, and in that last, highest wall, she put a door.
And then she lay down on the sturdy wood and let server time steady and resync and stared at the clouds, emptied by pleasure.
The Earnest Admirer found her there, pondering why one cloud looked like ectoplasm and another whipped cream. The teenager stopped, obviously unsure whether it was safe to break her concentration, and leaned against the wall of the tower with fake casualness, back against the stone, one foot propped. She could hear the Earnest Admirer’s shoe slip down the stones as the teenager tried and failed to get a good grip on the wall. Finally the Earnest Admirer sat down.
“Are you, like, you know, done?”
She rolled her head so she could see the teenager with one eye. “For the moment.”
“Jamil’s afraid of heights.” The words were an offering, as if the Earnest Admirer—no, she switched on the overlay that displayed names—as if Kim had to explain or maybe excuse her presence. “Some people—” Kim’s voice made it clear that she didn’t include herself in this category “—are flipping out. They want you to do something.”
She imagined carving free the land where the others gathered, a generous chunk, maybe with fresh water, a few fruit trees; unmooring it, dragging it into and through the ocean, to float in the deepest, farthest waters. But no. Long ago she’d rejected carelessness, embraced care. And every moment she breathed decided who she was again. She sat up, twisted her back to the right until it cracked, to the left.
“Let’s go down then.”
And so they wound their way around the tower and down, her trailing the fingers of one hand against the rough stone, Kim darting forward and then stopping until she caught up. About halfway down—evidently she had built eleven stories in addition to the cellar—Kim said, “You’re very angry, aren’t you?”
She stopped, placed her palm flat against the stone. “I am.”
“Mmm. Most immediately because this server is my place to be alone.”
“And now you’re not.”
“Now I’m not.”
“That’s it? You’re mad at us?” Kim glared. “I didn’t ask to come to your stupid server.”
“Oh my anger’s much bigger than just that.” Her fingertips explored the stone’s topography; she shivered. “I’m angry about the enormous damage we’ve inflicted on the planet and other species. I’m angry about the cruelties of our society. I’m angry that these damages and cruelties are so enmeshed in our systems that I’m made complicit in them just by living. I’m angry that I’ve wasted—waste—so much of my life in meaningless distractions. I’m angry that my supervisor ignores half my emails and then blames me when projects don’t meet their timelines. I’m angry that my parents love my sister more than me but lie and say they don’t. I’m angry that my dog, who made me laugh and love so hard, died.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kim said with careful solemnity. “When did your dog die?”
“Nine years ago.”
Disapproval at such lengthy grief flitted across the teenager’s face, wavered, settled into pity. “The teachers at school taught us to meditate. To manage our anger?”
“Understandable. But misguided. You have to feel your anger, listen to what it calls you to do. Rage is pleasurable for a reason. Enjoy it.”
The teenager scowled. “I don’t take things out on other people.”
She laughed softly. “Is that all you know of anger? Anger is a gift of creative power, anger helps you make change. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to just let go of your anger. Once you have it, it’s yours to do with as you please. Tend it. Learn it. Use it. I bet you’re angry right now—with me, with the world, with however you ended up here, with all sorts of things.”
“I’m not angry, I’m scared.”
“Really.” She said the single word flat, to provoke. “You think it’s totally fine for the world—and let’s be honest, we’re talking about humans, because whatever the hell’s going on, pretty sure it’s humans causing it—you think it’s fine for the actions of a bunch of people to just dump you in some random server without explanation or warning, without you having any kind of say in it?”
Kim smacked her hand against the wall, shot her a furious glance, and then, settling her face into an insolent expression, pulled, deliberately and slowly, at the stone under her hand, yanked it until the stone extended into a spike, short and squat and deadly, its blue-grey now blood-black. And then stopped, clearly expecting to be reprimanded and ordered to restore it immediately.
She considered Kim. “Only the one?”
Kim set her jaw, put her palm to the stone immediately to the right, and drew that one out into a blood-black spike, too. And then the next one. And the next. Each spike stretching a little longer. Somewhere around the twelfth stone the spikes started to glimmer with hints of metal hidden inside and Kim’s scowl shifted from annoyed to focused. And then the spikes became not just longer but long and then very long, and the blood-black became blood-red and then crimson and then rose. So that when Kim reached the row’s final stone, she gave it a spike of bright pink that shimmered with gold, long and delicate and ending in the tiniest, most exquisitely sharp point. And Kim stopped and smiled and then remembered she wasn’t alone and tucked the smile away.
“Very nice,” she said.
Kim started to shrug but halfway through turned it into a nod and let her smile spill free.
Back down they went, winding around the tower in ever tighter spirals until at last they reached the ground. The others waited well outside the radius of the tree-tower, spread across a grassy remnant of the clearing era: Jamil and Ron and Analucía and Nana and Yuko and Leeza and Barnabas and Nathan and Joy. They moved when she and Kim approached, not toward the tower but toward each other, to stand in clusters, dazed and tear-streaked. Yuko and Nathan, two of the volleyball players, stood close to Barnabas, who was murmuring This isn’t happening this isn’t happening this isn’t happening. They tried to lift the keg from his back, but he shrugged them off.
“You stopped to build a tower?” said Ron, a streak of mucus glistening on his neck. “That looks like that?”
“And a tree,” said Kim.
“I did,” she said. And then, “Don’t go through the door. The tower has no floors.”
“I made spikes,” volunteered Kim and Analucía glowed at her.
Barnabas lunged forward, toward her, and the suddenness of his movement shook the tap loose and sent droplets of beer flying to sprinkle her, tiny stars of wetness. “This is your fault.”
“Hey, man, why don’t we just—”
“You, you made this happen. This is just like those stupid frog monsters. Well, maybe you get off on pain, but I didn’t do anything to deserve this, I can’t be dead. You hear me? I do not accept this.” He shook a red plastic cup at her. “You need to sort this out. Right. Now.”
Kim stepped toward him, fury rolling off her. “This isn’t her fault! You’re just being an asshole because you’re scared and you don’t know how to deal with it.”
“Shut up, just shut up!”
“Don’t talk to her like that!” Analucía moved to stand next to Kim.
“I’m the one who got swallowed by the frog,” said Ron. “You want to complain about the frogs, you go get swallowed first.”
She raised her voice then, firm and even, over and through the hubbub. “This is my server, and in my server, we treat each other with respect. That includes me. I am not your punching bag. You are not mine. I will enforce this as necessary.”
Barnabas deflated, unhooked tap swinging forlornly at his thigh. “I can’t be dead,” he mumbled.
She looked around then. It was a glorious day. Sunlight skipped across leaves and branches, danced with shadows. A pale yellow butterfly bobbed above meadow grass bright with leaf and blossom. Trees, tall and magnificent, surrounded the clearing as if they, too, had gathered to discuss this curious state of affairs. And now Nathan of the turquoise bandana hugged Barnabas, and Kim bumped Analucía’s shoulder gladly, and Jamil stopped shifting back and forth, trying to decide where and how to intervene. And Ron looked affronted. Again. Or maybe still.
“Has anyone tried to exit recently?”
“I’ve been trying on seven-minute intervals,” said Jamil quietly. “No change. And no more arrivals.”
“Okay, then,” she said. “Well. Right. Okay. So. Let’s not jump to conclusions. We still don’t know what’s happened and if it’s— How long it’s likely to last. So. Why don’t we all sit down and talk through what it means to be here, together. How we’re going to make things work.”
Again, that was Excuse Me, This Is My Apocalypse, by Amy Johnson, narrated by Christiana Ellis.
I thought this story was hilarious and touching. I thoroughly loved each new reveal that we got in the story. It was really funny that our protagonist’s dramatically doomed apocalypse, was not, in fact, a real apocalypse, and just an emo beach scene. So then the contrasting humor of the others popping up (and Jamil trying to be so! helpful! and shushing people) made for a really nice contrast.
I also liked the final twist that says they’re going to be all around in the afterlife together, so they’d better figure out how to build a society and work with each other. And also figure out what to do about the man-eating frogs. When I got this story on assignment and read it through the first time, I thought, wow, this somehow feels like the perfect story to close out the year with, ready to start the next chapter. And then I looked at the schedule and lo and behold that is exactly what it is. So Happy New Year to all of you. As always, we are tremendously grateful for all your listening and support. And, may your next year NOT be filled with giant man-eating frogs.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution non commercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please, go forth and share it.
How do you share it, you ask? Well! In addition to your social media of choice, consider rating and/or reviewing us on podcast listening sites, such as Apple or Google. More reviews makes for more discoverability makes for – say it with me now – more Escape Pod for you.
Escape Pod relies on the generous donations of listeners exactly like you. So you know if you’re looking for a new year’s resolution, well! remember that Patreon subscribers have access to exclusive merchandise and can be automatically added to our Discord, where you can chat with other fans as well as our staff members. So! If you enjoyed our story this week then consider going to escapepod.org or patreon.com/EAPodcasts and casting your vote for more stories that imagine saltwater-living mutant man-eating frogs.
Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is obviously from Sartre’s afterlife play No Exit, which famously states: Hell is other people.
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Amy Johnson is a writer, scholar, and facilitator of speculation. Her stories and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Diabolical Plots, Escape Pod, Fantasy Magazine, and Lightspeed, among others. She’s a member of the Nautilus writing group and the editor of the Drones & Dreams anthology; she holds a PhD from MIT and leads workshops that use speculative fiction techniques to explore the personal and societal consequences of technologies. She’s currently working on a speculative suspense novel. Find her at amyjohnson.com or on Twitter at @shrapnelofme, where she tweets about language, technology, and other fun things.
About the Narrator
Christiana Ellis is an award-winning writer and podcaster, currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her podcast novel, Nina Kimberly the Merciless was both an inaugural nominee for the 2006 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction: Long Form, as well as a finalist for a 2006 Podcast Peer Award. Nina Kimberly the Merciless is available in print from Dragon Moon Press. Christiana is also the writer, producer and star of Space Casey, a 10-part audiodrama miniseries which won the Gold Mark Time Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Production by the American Society for Science Fiction Audio and the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Drama. In between major projects, Christiana is also the creator and talent of many other podcast productions including Talking About Survivor, Hey, Want to Watch a Movie? and Christiana’s Shallow Thoughts.