When the second Shock came Della was halfway down the stairs in Rab’s block of flats, pulling her jacket over her shoulders. The sensation stole over her subtly — a shiver at the back of her neck, the hair on her arms electric as leather sleeves touched her flesh. She slowed, stopped at a high window that allowed a little grey light. Through the metal grille she saw the line of cars parked on the street below, morning quiet that sizzled in her vision as if a great heat had washed over the city. Then there was nothing.
She realized she was stunned. Shaking herself, turning away from the window, she looked back up the stairs from where she’d come. Rab stood there, silent. He was already dressed, though she’d left him in bed but a minute before, sleeping soundly. His lined face was as serious as ever and his light hair was pushed up from his pillow, or from her hand when she’d stroked it as she left. Della felt a surge of desire to walk back up there, take his arm and drag him back to his flat, take him to bed and forget what she’d seen on the street.
She said, “Tell me I imagined that.”
He shook his head. Serious, without a hint of the panic that was bubbling up in Della’s belly as reality hit her in a rush.
“We have to get to work,” he said. As if it was just another day, and not the end of the world, again.
* * *
Illustration by Indrapramit Das
The first Shock had rolled over the earth when Della was a child. That morning she’d watched red and purple bears dance on television. She saw the television flicker off. It upset her, but didn’t startle her. The world was new enough to Della that the television could have risen up and flown around the room and it would only have amused her.
Her mother’s reaction was the first thing that told her something was wrong. Her mother’s hard and shaking hand, dragging Della through empty streets to a friend’s house so they could argue about what had happened. The content of the arguments were lost to Della. She remembered only the fear.
Twenty years later, walking through empty streets with Rab, she couldn’t shut up.
“Mobile phones blank, computers wiped, modern cars bricked. Even the tramway I took to school had been shut down ...”
He didn’t stop her, though he surely knew it already. Della knew her adjustment to the post-Shock world had been easy because she’d been so young. People like Rab had known what they were losing. He’d had to abandon his whole way of life. All Della had to do was grow up.
Until now, she realized. The second Shock. Now she was back at the beginning again, crying because the dancing bears were gone from Channel 4.
* * *
Rab stood at the head of the room.
“All right then,” he said. The room quieted. “We have a job to do.”
“Boss?” Sergeant Mills spoke up. He was one Della had been sure would stay home. He had a baby and another on the way. “How are we going to manage that?” He held up his useless walkie-talkie.
Rab took a breath. “You need that to do your job?”
“I need it for back-up. Where will we get back-up?”
“This is it.” Rab pointed at the few dozen officers scattered through the room. “There won’t be any more no matter what we want or need.”
Della didn’t want to be part of the crowd, staring at her commanding officer like he expected her to grow an extra head, but there she was.
Rab looked right back. He closed his eyes briefly then stared them all down.
“Most of you were too young to be working for the first Shock, so let me tell you how it was. They didn’t tell us anything. There wasn’t any system of communication left working, so we were blind. Like now. We didn’t know if it was a temporary blip or World War III. At least we know that, now. Back then a few I knew decided it was the bloody rapture. Stood on the roof staring up like they were about to ascend. That got dull after an afternoon, I guess. So they hurried things on by throwing themselves onto the pavement from three stories.
“When things started coming together they told us it couldn’t happen again. They said it was a one-time mistake, a combination of magnetic fields and gadgets that was so unnatural it took decades to make it happen and the chances of another were nDella. Idiots or liars, doesn’t matter. There was always a possibility, and here we are. We’re more equipped than before, with information most of all. We know what happened this time, and this time we aren’t helpless.
“If you came in at all today you’ve already committed. You know your job doesn’t end when things go bad, that’s when it begins. I salute you for that, and I need your help now.”
There wasn’t much else to do but get on with it.
* * *
The evening before, they’d held a retirement celebration for one of Della’s colleagues. Ending up at Rab’s flat had been a surprise. He’d escorted her out of the pub and they’d shared a cab. His house was closest and she got out with him without thinking about it. Just reacting to his warmth. His smoky breath and the seriousness in his eyes replaced by wariness, then pleasure.
That had been her last car ride, she realized. The last for a long time.
The exodus was in full swing before lunch time. Main streets had filled with families struggling to reach the countryside while rioters took alleys into the city, both directions gaining momentum as the day went on. Cars that had stopped in the streets were rolled out of the way or trampled and dented between the crowds, windows broken and contents taken. Looting was standard, with grocery and clothing stories hit worst. Electronics shops were given a reprieve.
Della’s colleagues weren’t concerned with looting. They were sent out in groups to direct those who were confused about whether to hide at home or run for the hills, and to keep clear the separation between families and criminals.
In the afternoon Rab found her holding a line in front of a pharmacy.
“I have something better for you to do,” he said. “Off the streets.”
He said, “Before you get strange, you should know I’d say that even if we hadn’t—”
“Go on,” Della said.
“Come by my office when you’re finished.” As if they’d ever be finished. “I have something to show you.”
“Are you sure that’s appropriate?” Della wondered if her smile would show beneath her helmet.
“Such cheek.” He turned away.
* * *
They could only do so much. The city had emptied itself of good, families gone or hidden and the streets left to ruin. Shops with shutters pulled up and windows shattered, and houses blackened as whole blocks went up in flame. Della reminded herself that they’d been through it before, that eventually when humanity’s head cleared it would realize it could survive. Once more, they’d rise from the ashes. She knew eventually she’d believe it, too. Having lived through it once, she’d have faith again. But tonight she was tired.
Still, she went to Rab’s office. The memory of the night before and her curiosity drew her.
He was covered in soot. She saw the negative outline of his flak jacket where it had stopped the grime, and a streak of grey in his hair like it had grown there in the last few hours. She stood and watched him for a minute, wondering what he was doing writing a report freehand, with a pencil and paper, lit by one white candle. Who was going to read it?
She cleared her throat. “All done out there.”
He looked up without a smile and stood without a word. “Come with me.” Grabbed the candle and a key from his desk and walked down the hall.
She followed. The station was an old building, built before the first Shock, and its thick stone walls kept out the noise of the world. With all the cars and trains and machines stopped the city was quieter, but it held the hum of distant shouts and crashes that filled the gaps. Della was glad to be out of it, in the quiet.
A doorknob at the end of the hall flickered in the candlelight. Rab unlocked and opened the door and gestured her through. Storage: full of cardboard boxes, thick with dust.
“Nice,” she said, and stood still.
He handed over the candle and tore at a box. The top folded open and she saw books inside. Real books.
Of course paper books had a revival in her lifetime but they were cheap things, printed grudgingly on tissue-thin leaves as if no one wanted to admit they were necessary long-term. It would have been a vote of non-confidence for all civilization.
“The old law library,” he said. “I mean the really old law library. It was about to be tossed before the first Shock, but we kept it around when things went bad. Some of the laws are out of date, but some aren’t. It’s amazing how many aren’t, and there’s other stuff besides, historical cases and the like. It’s good to know where we came from. Again last year they were going to get rid of it, and I said I had, but I stored it here.”
Della took the book out of his hand. The leather cover was smooth and alive against her palm. The spine bent as if oiled and vellum-thick pages whispered against her fingers. The type was black and crisp, serif font speaking in tongues.
She shut it quickly, imagining fire and flood. She thought to set it down but didn’t want to let it go.
“Thank you for showing me this,” she said.
“Not everyone can get to this dusty room,” Rab said. “I digitized them the last time. I might need help this time around. That’s all.”
She handed back the volume. He took it and put his hand over hers.
“Maybe not,” he said.
* * *
Della and Rab spent another night at Rab’s apartment. They might have been the only ones in the building. Their lovemaking was clumsy, concerned with keeping flesh touching flesh without attention to technique. Della was distracted but she didn’t want to be alone. She heard Rab’s breath quickening and then quieting and wondered that a man who’d lived through the end of the world twice was putting so much confidence in her. She revelled in the feeling that she was necessary. That she held the future in her hope and knowledge, and there it could survive.
She felt him sigh and shift, moving away and lying down.
“Something on your mind?” he asked.
“Wondering about those people you knew who threw themselves off the building waiting for rapture.”
“If they were so convinced, why didn’t they wait?”
“There wasn’t anything to wait for.”
“I mean the rapture.”
“I guess they figured out there was nothing coming.”
Della wondered what she’d feel, what she’d do, if she thought there was nothing coming.
After a minute Rab reached for her again.
* * *
Communication resumed more quickly this time around. In just a few weeks there was an information network resurrected throughout the country, with trickles coming in from elsewhere, and one main radio station broadcasting for everyone. Many refused to trust it, but it was the only voice they had. Della listened daily and she wasn’t alone.
Three months past the second Shock the station made the announcement. It was a rest day and most of the team were in the station, listening on one speaker. The speaker cracked its broken voice and said they’d found the lone fanatic responsible holed up in his garage. Authorities refused to release his name, but they did say they had evidence he’d been working on creating a second Shock since shortly after the first. That he’d succeeded meant it could happen again, any time.
“Social experiment?” the radio said.
“And what kind of scientist performs an experiment beyond any examination? There are no conclusions made, no hypothesis proved or disproved. It’s a shambles.”
“I see a conclusion. Look out a window, if you have any windows left ...”
Rab snapped off the radio. He stood at the centre of the silence as everyone considered social experiment and conclusion.
* * *
Della stood in the law library and considered the third Shock. If it was a fantasy, or an inevitability. In one hand she held the blank hard drive where she was meant to transfer the scanned data, and in the other hand, one of Rab’s books. Plastic case and smooth leather cover.
Spread out digitally the information in the room could reach everyone for as long as it was allowed to exist. But how long was that? The unnamed fanatic hadn’t just changed her world, he’d sliced through the foundations of the next. Lines of ones and zeros. Formatted future.
She wanted to feel the necessity of carrying on. She wanted to have the certainty she’d seen in Rab when he’d stood up in front of them all and told them to get on with it. To get on with it again. And again?
There was a noise in the hall. She set the book she held back into its cardboard tomb and folded it closed. Mills appeared at the doorway, eyes smudged black.
Della waited for the news.
“Rab is on the roof,” he said.
Jen Brubacher’s short fiction has been published in various places including Northword Magazine, Every Day Fiction, and the speculative fiction anthology Nothing But Flowers: Tales of Post-Apocalyptic Love. She was born in British Columbia and currently lives in London, England.