I’d only ever heard my grandfather talk about the Control Room after a few too many whiskeys, and he never talked much. In between long, deep drags of a fat, hand rolled cigarette he would talk about a place where good people had to make impossible choices, and bad people learnt what power was. I remember sitting at his feet, breathing in his disgusting smoke, hanging onto ever spluttered, mumbled word – watching him tap the cigarette on the heavy set ash tray and waiting for him to continue.
“Imagine,” he would lean back in his leather chair and look over the top of my head, “imagine having the whole world at your fingertips. You could turn off a light in the bathroom of small terrace downtown, or you could blow the whole suburb into smithereens. You could listen in to any phone call, trace any email, find any person… I was there once.”
He would always look me dead in the eye when he said that, and I never knew why it repulsed me.
I had a strange relationship with the old man when I was young. There was so much knowledge in those deep set wrinkles, and I was so hungry to know. I wanted to know everything, so so desperately. But his eyes were cold and hard and blank almost all of the time; and he never, ever hugged me. He only showed emotion when he talked about that time, that time when everything changed – and it was always difficult to tell exactly what emotion it was he was revealing. Now I’m standing where he was and all I an think of is his cold hard eyes and I will mine to stay as wet as they are, so I know I’m human – even if it makes me weak and unable to make the choices he did.
Tom kicks my chair and brings me out of my daze.
“What do we do? What what what oh what do we do do do do,” I’ve never seen a grown man spin so many times around on an office chair before or laugh with such frightening delirium.
Max just sits there with his eyes furrowed and stares at the rows and rows of buttons. He has a vein on his forehead that unfortunately looks slightly like a swastika. It bulges when he’s stressed. He is definitely stressed
“What do we dooo,” Tom’s still singing, and still swinging. He dances his fingers over the buttons carelessly and his eyes dart from left to right quickly. I’m sure he isn’t listening to the strange distorted screaming that, though muffled, penetrates the thick panes of glass. He’s only watching candles flicker and occasionally go out with a bang and a puff of smoke all though New York city. I’ve never seen sky scrapers fall like dominos or heard hundreds of panes of glass smash in symphony before. I imagine Tom’s elation is somewhat akin to the thrill of an arsonist watching plastic bubble and couches explode.
We’re in the Control Room. And it’s extraordinary. Top floor of a 104 story building that has panoramic views of New York City, except that the city is burning and the people are screaming and I’m in a room with a man spinning on an office chair, and another that has what looks like a pulsating purple swastika on his forehead who hasn’t said a word.
We had all heard stories. When I was little I remember my mother telling me of the day the sky would peel off in strips like wall paper and our forests would catch alight like matchsticks and we would fry in seconds, exposed to the blaze from the unshielded sun. Her mother had told her that story when she was young.
We had all the heard the stories of it coming, for years. But none of us had ever heard the story of when it was here.
The first warning that it was near came when I was in my final year of high school. It was the last day of our exams and twenty of us walked out as one tartan-clad conglomerate feeling as if we owned the world. Until the world started spitting dead fish at us.
There’s nothing quite like getting hit in the face with a slimy fish carcass. Especially when it falls out of a hole in the sky. All over town in the blaring sunshine, New Yorkers put up their black umbrellas and the streets were filled with the most bizarre sound of flesh slapping plastic and plopping on to the pavement – forming smelly mounds that women with high heels had to gingerly tread around. New York reeked for weeks and we would discover hunks of fish caught up in sheets that had been hanging on the line, or gumboots by the backdoor, for many days afterwards. It wasn’t New York’s most glamorous moment.
That was the first time I knew that it was coming – when the fish fled the oceans and then fell out of the sky. But there were many times after that. There was the time when all the livestock in the country turned themselves inside out. Inside out and rimmed with blood and taunt sinewy muscle. All over the country side there were reports of what they called “cattle inversions” – intestines spilling onto paddocks and tongues lolling out of bare jaw bones. Sometimes in the heat their stomachs would fill with gas and they would explode on the pavement. Poor, helpless animals bloodied all over the continent.
My mother died after the insects came. They covered her like a blanket and turned her skin into a doily with their tiny razor teeth. They stripped her eyes of their lashes and her mouth of its lips. I buried her in the deepest hole I could dig amongst the fear and the tears in the hopes that they would not find her body and desecrate it further.
In the beginning, these disasters were few and far between. Every few years became every few months and fear became a constant state of being. And we became horrific. People have always killed people, and the strongest have always enslaved the weak and the cruel have always played with the passive like puppets. But the fear, the fear sucked out the love and the hope and made us cold and blind and hard like stone. It gave our babies hearts of sawdust and cloudy eyes and hands that never gripped our fingers and mouths that only cried. And sometimes it was hard to remember a time when the air wasn’t thick with sorrow and we would still hold hands walking down the street.
And now, now I have no fucking idea what to do. Because 360 degrees around us the world is screaming and debris are hitting our panorama like molotovs and we’re watching the city fall to its knees.
“Maybe we could draw straws.”
Tom is still spinning on his chair but less frenetically now. He drags his toes on the carpet and scuffs the infinity sign. He tilts his head to one side and shakes it; the sort of shake you see children do at the swimming pool when they have water in their ears. We all have that twitch, I barely even notice it anymore. The dull buzz of screaming has become everyone’s tinnitus and we all try to shake it out.
“Draw straws to do what?”
Max’s sitting under the desk now, tracing each cable from the switch board on the desk back to its point of origin. I don’t know if he’s trying to work out how to save us all, or if he’s just curious. But there are hundreds of identical black cables, if the way out of this mess lies in that tangled web, I don’t feel particularly confident that we’re going anywhere.
“To do something. Push something. Maybe all of them at once?”
Max and Tom are best friends. Circumstances brought them together, and me, a long time ago. We have spent many nights sleeping in sewers, hiding in parks and silently holding hands in the middle of the darkness refusing to confess our fear. Max looked up at Tom with that familiar face of distain and it made him so ugly. Fear has made Max angry and it has made Tom weak. It’s awful watching people crumble.
“What exactly do you want to do? Save us? And go where? Save them?” Max gestured wildly and sneered at the ludicrousness of the thought, “Save them and put them where? And why? They did this.”
He spat when he said “them”. His mouth was twisted with revulsion and laced with venom. He hates “them” – which is practically everyone asides from me and Tom. They are all the same to him; sub-human, worthy of the destruction they have brought on themselves. I think at least in some way, he thinks this annihilation is probably for the best – we were only killing each other anyway. This way maybe the planet will still survive and a few humans can try and start again. The ones who run and hide and wait and wait until the worst is over. We hid together for a long time and we had been running for almost three years until we ended up here.
“We could try and find him?”
Tom is still spinning in slow circles but is now rocking back and forth as well. He reminds me of a child sometimes in his palpable fear and vulnerability; yet irrepressible courage. He will walk trembling into walls of fire – where most men would run away – and he’ll come out the other side and fall apart with fear of dying. He looked up wide-eyed now, apprehensive of Max’s taunts.
“Try and find him? He tried to kill us! He is the reason why we’re all stuck here! With a room full of machines that make no fucking sense.”
Max had long abandoned sorting cables and now paces up and down the room picking things up and putting them down again with varying degrees of force.
“But he knew, he knew about this place. Everything that he said has happened. We ended up in a giant concrete pillar in the middle of a burning city. And he said we’d only have one chance! He told us. And he said he would come and find us… So maybe he’s near by.”
Maybe he’s nearby. I am surprised how reassuring I find that. It’s odd to feel comforted by the knowledge that a man who ran at you with a machete might be coming to find you. I touch the crusty slash that runs from my temple to just under my chin. I had leapt back just in time.
We met him in a sewer just near Central Park. We had met fellow travellers in sewers before, but it was very, very rare – mostly they were lost and looking for a way out. We had never anyone like this man though. I had never even seen some of the equipment this man had strapped on his arms, his legs, in his backpack… I had certainly never seen eyes that yellow and that absolutely void of fear.
When fear becomes a part of you like it is now a part of us, its absence is so immediately visible. We all felt instantaneously that this man was different. Tom had whispered to me that there was something strange about the man. He said it was as if there was something missing. It was not the fearlessness of a child who had never been hurt and believed he could fly; it was the fearlessness of someone who has felt fear – such fear – before, and no longer has anything to be afraid of.