I take time-lapse photographs of an orange. The result is always the same. First I remove the previous orange from the spike in front of the black velvet backdrop and replace it with a new orange. I set an incandescent spotlight out of frame as a light source.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA. May 1, 02:07 Greenwich Mean Time
At four o’clock in the morning, when the explosions were fewer and some dozed on the step, SpaceCorp’s main door opened briefly. She, and a couple of dozen others, managed to squeeze in without being trampled before the door locked. She kept her feet beneath her in the rush for Reception. By holding her elbows at her sides she could still breathe when the crush formed again by the doors on the far side of the lobby.
Someone behind her must’ve had a functioning earadio, because he gasped and told a companion that London had fallen. London! Riots and looting as the city burned. And Rio yesterday, Saigon last week.
Others around her must have overheard, because the throng surged forward in panic. She tried to work her way toward an open space near the wall. A fist fight broke out beside her. The wild-eyed boy to her right was knocked to the floor and she almost fell onto the heap of bodies.
Someone — a man — grabbed her hand and yanked her through the momentary gap the distraction had caused.
She clung to his fingers as he pulled, her shoulder popping in pain. Small price to pay for survival. The surge pressed forward, but the man levered through the mass of bodies to get a hand behind her back. He elbowed someone’s nose and propelled her ahead of him. Her jaw squashed into a shoulder as he reached around her waist and grasped the door frame. Pulling himself against her, he thrust them both through the narrow opening into the tiny office with a wave of other people.
“You!” He took charge of the others. “Close that door! Now!”
The handful who had made it into the sanctuary turned back on the fists and legs clawing to join them. Instead of helping them, he shoved her forward, crowding the clerk’s desk. Uniformed security scrambled into position behind them, batons locked in place, forcing the throng back and barricading the door.
Thumping, cries of desperation and panic thrummed through the walls. She whispered fervent thanks. Out there, bones crunched. Out there, the smaller ones, weaker ones like her — were crushed underfoot.
“Married?” the man demanded in her ear.
She still hadn’t got a good look at his face. “No.”
“Next!” The clerk’s voice was metallic through the microphone. He processed another handful from behind the safety of his metal screen. “Not you.” A woman screamed as a uniformed man thrust her through a side door.
“Tell them you’re my wife.” The man pushed something small and round and hard into her hand. “What’s your name?”
“Christina.” She slipped the ring on her finger.
“Mary. I’ve already filled out the forms. You’re Mary Smith.”
Smith’s hand shot forward, the papers thrust through the tiny slit in the clerk’s screen. “Smith. John and Mary. Newlyweds. No children.”
I look through the lens. The orange is round with faint ridges in its waxy surface. It looks juicy, sweet. Its fragrance promises a world of nutrients, sugar, energy, minerals. A feast. A treasure. There is no hint of any spore on its surface. Yet, the void around it is not empty. At this scale, motes in the air are invisible.
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL. May 1, 02:23 GMT
Jacob shoved her forward, bruising her thigh against the desk, past the guard’s rank armpit and through the glass turnstile. Miriam tumbled into sudden space and quiet. The room seemed to exist in an eddy in time, a pastel green sanctuary untouched by the chaos of the world. Gentle, forgettable music washed over them. Shaded lamps from a lifetime ago shed soft pools of light on plastic chairs and laminate tables scattered with magazines. A plastic plant stood in the corner. Other young couples like them, bruised and bewildered, milled about, able at last to breathe.
Jacob guided her to an empty seat near the door at the far end of the room and she collapsed into it. A man beside her laughed hysterically at the huge joke of his survival. A woman on the far side of the room shook with tears as her husband distractedly stroked her arm. Another man appeared insanely calm, reading a newspaper — yesterday’s, the headlines less apocalyptic — with his legs crossed, while his wife stared into space. Jacob sat on the planter beside her, dishevelled but outwardly quiet.
Miriam became aware of her dry mouth and pounding heart. She forced her hands to lie still in her lap. “Could this be more bizarre?” she whispered into the polite hush of soft music.
Jacob lifted a brow. “It is what it is. We have to survive.”
“I should have left the city.”
“Where would you go? It’s happening everywhere.”
“Everywhere? In the world? This?”
“The world’s gone mad.”
She tried to conceive such panic, such chaos, world wide. A wave of fatigue from days of wakefulness washed over her. She struggled against it, tried to think.
“A world gone mad,” he repeated, almost to himself.
“Not mad. It’s not that. People don’t have the capacity to comprehend.”
She saw the pits in her mind, like bomb craters filled with oily stink, like gaping black mouths between mounds of rubble and crumpled steel. Refugees looting corpses, children darting into dark crevices. “The world is too changed to understand, so we focus on the things we can understand. Small things.”
He shrugged. “We’re next. Double check your papers.”
The orange has been sitting beneath the hot lights for some time. My camera picks out a pale place on the lower surface of the skin, where the spike has impaled pulp. See how the juice winds down the support, where the peel has pulled back from the wound? The smell is stronger now.
BEIJING, PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA. May 1, 02:49 GMT
“You must sign all the forms,” the official said. “Our corporation will not be held liable …”
“Christ,” Jun whispered in Mingxia’s ear. “Liability. I told you the world’s gone mad.”
“Any failure, whatsoever. This includes, but is not limited to human error, computer malfunction, loss of power for any reason —”
“Give us the forms. We’ll sign,” Jun said.
“It must be informed consent,” the man went on. “We cannot guarantee you will be woken from cryogenesis. I must emphasize —”
“Give us the forms,” Mingxia said.
“I must make you aware that the pods will have no preprogrammed destinations —”
“Give us the —”
The bureaucrat held up his hand. “And, with multiple launches, there is a possibility of in-flight collision on takeoff.”
“We’ll sign any damn thing, just give us the forms.”
A shriek of twisting metal rent the air and the three looked out the window. The tower beside them canted, leaning dangerously toward them.
A clicking thump, thump, thump brought Mingxia’s attention back to the desk. The official stamped all the forms, thrusting each page back to them. “Go down the hall to your left and follow the signs to the Cryogenics Lab. A doctor will meet you there. Next!”
A colony of fungus, a grey fuzz, has appeared in one place and a black greasy powder ring has sprung up on the other side. They look as though they would be soft to touch. The orange is still full and ripe and round, and the colonies are thriving.
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA. May 1, 03:04 AM GMT
A bank of windows lined one side of the corridor. Couples and scientists and clipboard-laden clerks ran in both directions, their faces the colour of fear.
A sub-auditory thud shuddered through the building and the floor tilted at a perilous angle, sending them skidding into the windowed wall.
“Is it an earthquake?” Through the glass Milena could see an open pit twenty stories below her, asphalt crumbling around its edges. From this height she could see sunrise breaking, blood-red between the bones of skyscrapers, through layers of poisoned air.
“They’ve cannibalized buildings for steel, for the pods and the launch pads.” Jurek scanned the signs in the corridor for directions.
“How can they do that? Use everything for a program like this, when people are starving in the streets?”
“Don’t look, Milena.”
Milena hurried behind him. “It’s insane. It’s not just.”
“People are starving anyway. Turn left.”
A hole yawned in the floor.
“Maybe we’d be better off at Boeing.”
“Boeing is across the city. Stelco is downtown.” He skirted the gap and pulled her at a jog down the corridor. “We’re here. We’ll go with SpaceCorp.”
A good portion of the surface is covered with thriving fungus now. Some patches of orange remain and the air is ripe with its sweet smell. The fungus drains the fruit of its nutrients and continues to build grey and black and blue structures over the disappearing surface.
CALCUTTA, INDIA. May 1, 03:52 GMT
The doctor entered the examining room, her grey hair in tangled disarray with chunks of scalp showing. She studied the chart in her hand. “You’ve been briefed on the suicide pills?”
“I thought they were needles,” Mandira said. Nothing was certain.
“Your choice.” The doctor checked the columns of boxes ticked off on the form on her clipboard. “The needles are quicker, but some people don’t like them.”
“Suicide pills?” Japinder held out a wrist for the doctor’s monitor.
“In case you wake before you reach a destination.” She pushed her hair out of her eyes, then clipped a probe to his index finger. It beeped and she removed it. “There are instructions in the pods which you can read when you wake.”
A terrible sound came from outside. The building shook. Mandira grasped Japinder’s arm.
“Only a launch,” the doctor said. She pulled a mirror from her pocket and looked at her hair.
Mandira placed her finger in the probe. “Will you be going?”
“Not enough pods. I’m too old. The program needs reproductive couples.” She found a comb and worried away at the tangles above her brow.
“What will you do?” The instrument signalled Mandira’s acceptability.
“This part of the world hasn’t collapsed. We’ll have weeks, yet. Maybe months.” The doctor pulled at the knots with her comb, tearing out bits of hair.
Japinder took Mandira’s hand. “Which way to the pods?”
The doctor ripped at the tangles on the side of her head. “Don’t take the elevator. Stairs to the left. Twenty-five flights down.”
The surface of the orange is no longer visible. The colonies intermingle, blurring boundaries of colour. A depression has formed at the base, where the spike supports the orange, and the juice has been flowing freely. The air is rank with the smell of rot.
SEATTLE, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. May 1, 04:37 GMT
A technician worked the controls of a launch pad as James and Macy arrived, breathless. He glared at them sidelong as he spoke into the microphone. “Launch in ten seconds. Clear launch bay twenty-six.”
He pointed to two chairs. Macy sat but James stood, shifting from one foot to the other.
“Four. Three. Two. One.” The technician pressed a button and the room rumbled as the pod screamed from its cannon. A new pod slid into place and the doors swished open. “You’re next.”
For a moment, Macy couldn’t make her feet carry her forward, couldn’t move. James placed his hand on her elbow and the moment passed. She followed him to the gleaming machine.
James eased himself into the reclined seat and it lengthened to fit his long frame. My God, it was small. To wake in space …
“Come on, then,” the technician said peevishly.
“Macy,” James said.
She stepped into the pod and her seat adjusted.
“The control panels are all labelled. The only one you need to know is this one. Instruction VRs. You won’t need them until you wake up.” He checked the restraints, and Macy felt a rush of adrenalin. She had an overpowering urge to bolt from the box.
“Don’t think,” James said. She wasn’t sure if he meant it for her or for himself.
She gripped the handles to keep her nausea down. “The suicide pills?”
The technician pointed to a compartment overhead. “Easily accessible. We hope you won’t need them.” He gave them each a mask. “The compartment is pressurized and oxygenated, but keep these handy, in case. The Cryogenics equipment will take three minutes to put you to sleep, so I’m going to give you a light tranquilizer until it takes effect.”
He rubbed Macy’s arm with an antiseptic and pricked her with a needle. She watched as he did the same to James, but before he finished, she felt her tension melt away.
The pod doors closed.
The orange, if it can still be called that, is no longer round. Cavities have appeared in several places and now I can see that its mottle of colour has become uniform, with black the predominant shade. I zoom in on long towers of spore stocks which stretch questioningly toward the dark.
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND. May 1, 04:49 GMT
Marianne was asleep before the technician’s voice played through the pod: “Launch in ten seconds. Clear launch bay twenty-six.”
The capsule jettisoned into the void.
Puff. Then, puff, puff, puff, the spores shoot out into the black, their fine silvery powder shining in the light momentarily until they disperse into invisibility. The fruit, a crumpled shell, falls in on itself, empty.