01. A message

The former British Isles represent an opportunity. There remains a substantial population, but they are separated by large bodies of water and largely ungoverned. The network is stable due to satellite infrastructure, but their quality of life is significantly diminished due to the rise. Further, they have abandoned currency, so there will be no desire for direct payment, and likely few substantive arguments against our usual advertising strategy. I believe this population will be eager to participate for the sake of the experience itself, and therefore recommend establishing a go-to-market strategy immediately. The remaining business risks for launch will be dealt with easily.

~ Internal memo, Menlo Park Corporation

 

My name is Var, as in Variable, as in how I feel about living at the end of the world.

If you were to take a drone and zoom out above me, flying it high above my head, I’d look like a single speck suspended in water, endlessly reflecting the sky. There was a city here, once, but now it’s just me, what passes for my house, and the ocean.

And Vince Vaughn, of course. He’s a stubborn old tabby who hates being around me, but the joke’s on him because we’re alone out here. Still, the fishing’s good, and he’s getting better at it, so there’s that.

I’m lying flat on the grass looking up at the sky with my earbuds in, listening to my network messages. Vince’s paws make a small splash as they dart through the water. The abrupt sound cuts through the noise-cancellation veneer and I turn to look at him. His tiny face is a study in quiet concentration: such a resourceful kitty. It’s a shame he’s such an asshole, but I guess that’s what you get when your only friend is a cat.

Okay, so there’s no-one else in my life to talk to, but I don’t know if I can exactly blame that on the rise. I could be surrounded by people - hundreds of thousands of them, like in the old days, before all this began - and I’d still prefer my own company. In a lot of ways, being stuck alone in my hut is my perfect living situation.

If I hadn’t lost my family - my parents, my brother - maybe I’d feel differently. But they were gone a long time ago.

I saw them die and I don’t want to talk about it.

My nearest neighbors are all at least a couple of miles away. There was a guy who lived closer - within eyesight, even - but his house was on a lower hill than mine, and eventually the water caught up with him. I watched him through binoculars as he packed the last of his possessions onto his dinghy and rowed away. I suppose it would have been a nice gesture to help, but he was always kind of an asshole to me, and why would I help someone who didn’t have the presence of mind to be respectful during an apocalypse?

Also, he had a few of those reclaimed army bots rigged up with weapons parked on his front lawn. I’m a single woman living by myself in a homemade cob hut in the middle of the ocean after the fall of civilization: you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t go help the strange man with the guns.

Vince has caught a fish - something small, nothing I could join him in eating - and is taking it inside the house. The smell will be intolerable, but I built him his own little nook to dismember his kills in, so I let him have it.

The benefit of building your cob hut yourself is that you can be your own architect. I bought the straw from a farm down in the valley before the rise had started in earnest, and mud was easy to come by once the water seeped in. I embedded solar panels into the exterior walls, the roof, and around the perimeter. There are a couple of lithium batteries in the interior walls, but they’ve started to fade, and it’s not like I’m going to be able to get replacements anytime soon. So mostly I’m dependent on the good graces of the weather, and on sunny days there’s just about enough power to keep me going through the night. When it rains, or if it’s overcast in the winter, or when Vince has been sitting on the roof panels in the wrong way, I just have to put on blankets and hope for the best. If I was smart, I would try and build a hydro-generator, or at least a steam dynamo on top of my purifier. There’s no such thing as too much energy.

Right now, though, it’s summer, the sky is blue, and there’s not a lot to do except sit outside and enjoy it. One of the benefits of the end of the world is no more 9 to 5: we all make things to trade and to eat, but it doesn’t take the same commitment as working used to.

Some of my neighbors tried to mine coin early in the rise, but it turned out to be a fantastically stupid thing to do. For one thing, all of us need all of the power we can get to warm ourselves, purify water, synthesize food: you know, all that boring stuff you need to live. But for another, it wasn’t a year in before we all stopped using currency and switched to a barter system. There’s no need for freaking Bitcoin when the world’s come to an abrupt end. There were still a couple of people who held on for dear life, but as it turned out, their lives didn’t last particularly long. You can’t take your cryptocurrency with you, and rugged independence only takes you so far when you have to depend on your fellow humans to survive.

I’m supposed to be going to the market.

Every Thursday (I still keep track of the calendar, like an idiot) I take my aluminum dinghy over to the floating market a couple of miles away. A few people have built floating farms, and they trade their produce for whatever they can use: equipment, raw materials, other food. I usually bring fish, which have the lowest trade value because all of us are surrounded by water, but sometimes I’ve been able to synthesize something more tasty or useful. For a while, I was making tofu. This whole thing is a cottagecore dream come true.

Instead, today, I’m lying on the grass, listening to my messages.

The network - the remains what we used to call the internet, before the rise - is the only way we can keep in touch with the world around us. They’re not my messages, exactly: they’re mostly just updates and re-shares from people in geographic proximity to me. Most people speak their updates aloud like they’re leaving a voicemail, but the network will show them to you as text if you want. You can overlay them on a lens, or whatever works best for you. I prefer voice: I might be antisocial, but I still like hearing people talk from time to time.

It’s mostly farmers, like always. That’s what we have left.

I’ve got extra cabbage, one says, in a broad Gloucestershire drawl. No need to trade. I’ll bring it to market. Make yourself some kimchee for winter. Pickled cabbage in all its forms has become a staple for all of us. Like I said: a cottagecore dream.

There’s a viral outbreak over at the Newport Market, another says. I make a mental note: no rowing over to Newport for at least another month, or at least until the all-clear. Medical visits aren’t exactly easy out here, and the viral outbreaks have been nothing to mess with.

Jesus loves you — skip. There’s always one. Somehow, there are still churches. Some of them sit on the remains of hills, like my hut; some of them float, proselytizing to anyone they can paddle in earshot of.

Beef! — skip. Cows have become incredibly resource-intensive. People are still trading beef; it was banned by the old government in the later days of the rise, but Parliament has long since disappeared underwater, so farmers at it again. It’s no less wasteful than it was, and often it’s not beef at all. Where is there to graze livestock? Humans, on the other hand, are still everywhere. I should have quit meat long before the water rose, but the first time I heard about the Hunters, I went vegetarian forever. Nobody wants to eat that.

Are you feeling lonely? — skip. So few words in, I can’t tell if it’s someone offering therapy or something more carnal, but I’m not interested in either.

I skip through the next few messages: all ads for produce or services. Those are fine, but I’m interested in news. Skip, skip, skip.

And then, a few more messages in, I stop in my tracks.

Var, are you out there?

The sender address is a throwaway; it was sent through an onion router, so it’s going to be next to impossible to figure out where it came from. Whoever sent it didn’t want to be traced.

But the voice is unmistakeable.

I’m still out here, he says. I know you think I’m gone, but I’m still here.

How?

I hope you’re well.

It seems impossible. It can’t possibly be, but it is.

It’s Let. My brother. How is he still alive?

I need you to listen carefully, he says. I can’t tell you why - not on this channel - but you’re in danger. You need to leave. Right now.

I scoop Vince off the grass at the edge of the water. He side-eyes me furiously.

Why is Let only contacting me now? What could he possibly mean? What’s going on?

I saw him die. But this is his voice. It’s him.

I can’t tell you where I am, but you need to find me. And soon. There’s something coming that’s very bad, and I’m afraid only you can stop it. Before it’s too late for everyone.

The message ends and I’m left holding my cat under a perfect blue sky, the panels on my homemade hut reflecting the bright summer sun, wondering what on earth to do next.