Authors: Mira Grant
ndy, where’s the beer?”
“Look in the crisper.”
Ryan paused before asking the obvious: “Why is the beer in the crisper?”
“Because grain’s a vegetable,” said Elsa, sensibly enough, as she dumped tortilla chips into a yellow plastic bowl. “That means beer is good for you.”
“I don’t even know what to say to that,” said Ryan, before digging a beer out from under a wilted head of lettuce. “Is Mike coming?”
“Mike’s coming, Cole isn’t.” Andy picked up the tray of sandwiches, pausing to kiss Elsa on the cheek before exiting the kitchen. The tray of sandwiches was placed ceremoniously on the dining room table, next to a veggie platter, a bowl of salsa, and a second bowl filled with peanut M&M’s. He glanced back as Ryan followed him to the table, adding, “Before you ask, Sandi’s coming. She just had to stop and pick up some root beer.”
“Right.” Ryan sat in his usual chair, cracking open his first beer of the evening. He’d stop after the third, when Sandi’s nagging became too much for him to handle. None of this was a mystery to anyone, and that was how all of them liked it. Playing the Apocalypse Game for fifteen years had transformed predictability into one of the weekly game night’s greatest attractions. Spend some time with your friends, play a board game you didn’t really care about, and plot the downfall of mankind. Pure bliss.
Cole’s absence was the only black spot on what was otherwise shaping up to be a perfect evening. She’d been more and more scarce over the past few years, as her job—which she never described in detail, being willing to say nothing beyond “I work for the government” and “I still use my medical degree”—kept her away from home more and more often. Even saying that much made her visibly uncomfortable, until they all stopped asking.
Still, Cole missing the Apocalypse Game was still a new phenomenon—new enough to be unnerving. Out of all the players, she’d always been the most reliable. “Remember the time Cole had pneumonia?” asked Ryan. “She missed two sessions in a row.”
“And then she showed up for the third session in her bathrobe.” Andy laughed, shaking his head. “Mike was so disappointed when he realized she had her clothes on underneath it.”
“Those were the days.” Ryan took a long swig from his beer, amusement fading. “This is the third session. She’s never missed three.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
“I’m worried about her,” said Elsa, emerging from the kitchen with the bowl of chips in her hands. “She’s been working too much. She needs the Apocalypse Game to take her mind off things.”
Ryan snorted. “I’m going to give you a second to think about what you just said.”
“I stand by it. Cole started the Game. She should be able to find the time to play.”
“I’m sure she’ll be back as soon as she can,” said Andy.
“I hope so.” Elsa sighed. “Maybe Mike can tell us more.”
“Maybe,” Andy agreed dolefully. Silence descended.
Their little social group was just like a thousand others, all over the world, at least superficially: a bunch of old friends getting together to play games and talk until well after any sensible person’s bedtime. They met in high school, a bunch of strange, smart kids living on the fringes of teenage society. They clustered together in self-defense, as much as anything else—it wasn’t until midway through freshman year that they all started to actually like each other.
The first Apocalypse Game was practically an accident. They’d been lazing around Cole’s house, bored and restless and looking for something to do. They’d tried everything from Poker to Candyland before Cole made her characteristically mild suggestion: “Why don’t we figure out how to destroy the world?”
The first scenario was Cole’s, of course. It involved a chemical spill wiping out the world’s plankton supply. Without plankton, the small fish died; without the small fish, the big fish died; without the big fish, everything else in the ocean followed suit. It was an ineffective, inelegant apocalypse, and after they’d spent the whole night debating it, Ryan said he could do better. Elsa dared him to prove it. A week later, he did. Sandi took the week after that, and so on, and so on. High school ended. College began. Dan and Tony moved away; Elsa and Andy got married; Cole and Mike didn’t, although they may as well have. And always, always, there was the Game.
Maybe it was a strange way to spend fifteen years of Friday nights. At the end of the day, none of them really cared.
The five players took their seats around the dining room table. The chair next to Mike remained conspicuously empty. None of them could avoid glancing at it at least once. Cole’s absence was palpable, and it couldn’t be ignored, no matter how hard everyone tried. She should have been there.
Mike cleared his throat. “I, uh, brought something. Well, Cole sent something.”
“Behind her love, her regrets, and a promise that she’ll do her best to make it next week?” asked Sandi, reaching for her second root beer.
“If you run out, we’re not stopping so you can go for more,” cautioned Andy.
Sandi shot him a glare. “I know that.”
Elsa raised a hand, stopping the familiar argument before it could begin. “What did she send?”
“Well, Sandi was right about Cole sending her love and her regrets. She also sent this.” Mike pulled a small digital recorder from his pocket. He put it down on the table, between the tortilla chips and the veggie platter. “Tonight’s supposed to be her turn, right?”
“Right,” said Ryan, dubiously. “So what, you’re going to present her scenario and record our discussion?”
“No. Cole’s presenting her own scenario. I’m here to play the game.” Mike pressed the “play” button on the top of the recorder. It beeped, once, before Cole’s sweet, always slightly distracted voice came through the speaker, just as clear as if she’d actually been there.
“Hi, guys. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there in person tonight, but I had…things…I needed to take care of. This is a scenario I’ve been working on for a while, and I think it’s pretty solid. There will be beeps every few minutes, like this one”—the recorder beeped again—“to signal that it’s time to pause for discussion before you continue. I think I’ve predicted all your responses. You could still surprise me.”
There was a third beep. Mike leaned forward and paused the recording.
“Well?” he asked. “Is everybody cool with this?”
“It’s weird,” said Ryan. “Weird is good.”
Sandi giggled nervously. “I guess it’s okay. I didn’t want to skip her turn, anyway.”
“I’m cool with it, sure, but do you know what’s on the recording?” asked Andy. “Not to be a stickler, but scenarios aren’t supposed to be shared before the Game.”
“She recorded the whole thing at work and gave it to me before she left for the airport,” said Mike. “I’m not a cheater. I didn’t listen.”
“Then I’m cool with it, too,” said Elsa firmly. “Play the scenario.”
Mike pressed the button.
“If you’re listening to this, that means you’ve decided to let me take my turn. Thank you. I really appreciate it. Anyway, this is Apocalypse Scenario number six hundred and eighty-three. I’ve never been good with names—I’m more interested in the science—so I just call this scenario ‘the Box.’”
“Sounds promising,” said Sandi, taking a swig of root beer. Ryan motioned for her to be quiet. She stuck her tongue out at him.
Cole’s voice continued implacably: “First, establishment of the scenario. The Box is based around a man-made bacterial pandemic. At the time the scenario begins, the bacteria in question have already been released into the human population at several geographically distinct locations. All the locations were in North America, but they all included a very high probability of intercontinental transmission within twenty-four hours, as in Andy’s Ticket to Die Apocalypse.”
“Cute,” said Andy.
“The bacterial strain you’re dealing with was designed by a young researcher employed by the bioterrorism division of the United States government. It was originally commissioned under the auspices of ‘counterterrorism.’” Cole’s voice turned briefly bitter, causing Andy and Elsa to exchange worried glances. Bitterness wasn’t native to Cole’s state of being. “The people in charge lied about it, of course. That’s vital to understanding this scenario: It begins with the assumption that if you reported the scenario to the government, they’d believe you, because the government is the reason the situation exists in the first place.”
The recorder beeped. Mike hit the “pause” button and looked around the table. “That’s our setup.”
“It’s pretty simplistic, especially for Cole,” said Ryan. “Somebody drops a test tube, somebody else tells the people in charge, and everything gets mopped up with minimal loss of life. The world doesn’t end.”
“Nobody dropped a test tube,” said Elsa. “She said it was released into the human population in ‘several geographically diverse locations,’ and implied that they were chosen to create the widest possible infection pattern. This thing was intentionally released.”
“The government angle still makes it pretty simple,” said Andy.
Sandi shrugged. “So it’ll be a short apocalypse. Go ahead and press ‘play,’ Mike. I want to hear what comes next.”
Mike nodded, and pressed the button.
The bitterness was gone when Cole resumed her explanation. Instead, she sounded cheerful, if a little overtired. “Second, elaboration of the scenario. You’re looking at a bacterial infection based on a combination of whooping cough and tuberculosis—just like Ryan’s No Air Apocalypse, only this time, the bacteria has been tailored for antibiotic resistance. The first generation has an artificially long latency built in, to allow for extensive spread. Once the first generations of bacteria have incubated to maturity in human lungs, the latency will be halved, until the final projected generation, where it will default to the standard latency period for whooping cough. Symptoms include coughing, runny nose, headache, difficulty breathing, muscular spasm, secondary pneumonia, and, of course, death.
“Fatality estimates place the death toll at approximately ninety-one percent of the infected population. It’s impossible to accurately predict susceptibility, but projections indicate that as much as eighty percent of the human race could be infected by the end of the second latency.”
“Okay, that’s…charming.” Sandi wrinkled her nose. “Has Cole gone off her meds or something? She’s not normally this nasty with her scenarios.”
Mike didn’t say anything. He reached almost mechanically for the chips, scooping up a handful. His eyes looked haunted. Something about that look frightened Andy in ways he wasn’t sure he could put into words. Something was wrong.
“Mike?” he said. “You okay, buddy? Is Cole okay?”
“She’s been working a lot lately.” Mike forced a laugh. It sounded unnatural enough that Ryan paused with his beer halfway lifted to his mouth. “She’s just stressed, that’s all. Let’s keep going.” Mike hit the button before anyone could object, and Cole spoke again.
“Three…” She paused, taking a deep breath. “Three, explanation of apocalypse stemming from scenario. Buckle up, guys. Here’s where the real game starts.”
“See, this researcher, she was recruited right out of college. Her ‘scholarship’ to medical school wasn’t a scholarship, not really; it was a government loan. They’d pay for everything, and she’d go to work for them when she graduated. They wanted her that much, because she was that good.” Something like pride crept into Cole’s voice. “They knew she’d be able to change the world.”
Elsa’s hand clamped down on Andy’s elbow, squeezing hard. None of them said anything. Every pair of eyes was fixed on the recorder.
“For a while, she was happy with the deal. She thought she was protecting the world against the bad guys—that she could stave off the apocalypse she’d been worrying about since she was in high school. She tore viruses and bacteria apart and recombined them in ways no one else had ever been able to accomplish. She read. She researched. She was going to change the world.
“Only it turned out she already had, because she started hearing about this outbreak in Korea that perfectly mirrored one of her projects—one of her
projects. People were dying of something that sounded a lot like her enhanced strain of the bubonic plague. She went to her superiors and asked them…asked them if they were going to send help. And they told her to go back to her lab, and get back to work.”
“I saw that on the news,” whispered Elsa. “So many people died. It was horrible.”
Cole continued: “She got scared then, our researcher, and she started really looking at the things she’d been working on. The things that were supposed to help people. Only they weren’t helping people at all. They were hurting them. And everyone said that was okay, because we weren’t the only ones—every government in the world was doing it, and that made it okay. That made it
. If we didn’t build it, someone else would.” She stopped, seeming to lose her place for a moment, before repeating, “Someone else
. It wasn’t something she could stop by walking away. You know? It was going to happen. We’d made it inevitable. She’d made it inevitable. So maybe the best thing she could do was stop it all before it got even worse. Stop it the only way she knew how. Stop the whole damn arms race for a while, and give everyone a chance to breathe. For certain values of ‘everyone,’ anyway. Because if she didn’t…
“Things have been getting worse for a long time. Everybody knows that. If humanity isn’t stopped, they’re going to kill the planet, not just themselves. Someone had to do something. She was just the one watching when the time finally came.”
“This is sick,” said Sandi. She popped the cap off her last root beer, glaring at Mike. “Why is she doing this? There’s not even anything to discuss. It’s just
“Mike?” Elsa worried her lip between her teeth for a moment before saying, “Cole never told us who she worked for.”