Introduction: This short story was written late in 2021 to be submitted to an online contest of short stories. I’ve decided to post it here, so that it may be viewed by the visitors of this site. It varies distinctly from the other short stories I have presented here; I categorize this tale as science fiction or dystopian fiction, rather than fantasy. It does not take place in the same world as my other short stories, either; it, like other dystopias, is meant to represent a potential future for our own earth instead.
Please note that this is not the future I would like to see, nor is it one I believe the human race will ever witness. As a warning, this story contains end-of-the-world themes.
On a bright Saturday afternoon in mid-August, a tall man stepped up to the door of an old house, humming pleasantly to himself. The building was squat and rectangular, bleached white and without a window in sight. He rapped once, then again, and finally a third time on the sturdy slate-grey door, using a small metal hammer he kept in his back pocket. After four heartbeats he heard a sharp click from behind the door, and then another, and another. Small sounds, each signifying a system starting up, a question finally put right. All part of a singular machine, like a clockwork, that still held intention after years of nonuse.
He smiled broadly. He had really never had any doubts as to its function, but one could never be so sure after fifty years of neglect. Of course, it was here for a single purpose. This purpose. He was not surprised, but satisfied.
A thin vertical line split the center of the door, and its two equally-sized sections slid smoothly into the walls with a whisper.
Darkness beyond. His home.
Before leaving the light, he looked to his surroundings one more time. An endless lot he saw there, the paving long abandoned, and strange ovular vehicles in the distance that were so far rusted they looked like rotten peaches. Buildings like his own dotted the landscape, though they were few and didn’t remove the barren, lifeless appearance. He looked up and to the farthest reaches of the visible world. The sun spread butter through the sky, and yet a storm unlike any other breached the horizon. He could see it even now: grey fire broiling on the skyline, clouds of dust and stone and carbon and soot raised in a tempest that would tear down the last remains of the earth. He could feel the anticipation in the air, the quiet that came before the storm; he imagined the wet spikes of rain that heralded its presence, particles performing final dances while they could. It was the last storm, and he knew it.
He was at the end.
He had traveled for one hundred days, sustained only by the hollow pipes that split his veins and the carbon muscles that swallowed his legs’ pain. It was time, finally, to rest.
Without a further thought, he entered the darkness. As soon as he did, the panels of the door slid shut behind him, and another pair, this one vertical, sealed over them. For a moment, he was in complete darkness. Then the room flared to life. His eyes, enforced by invisible lenses, did not bulge. He instantly made out the room around him. It was a simple place, really, built to host a wide array of comforts. Square, with a paneled floor, white light emanating from every surface. The wall was paneled as well, with one rectangular door (slate grey, no handle) on the side opposite that from which he had entered. This had been the work of a mechanical genius, some man or woman buried by the storm a hundred years ago. A shame that it would soon be reduced to mere molecules.
At the center of the floor one panel was painted a dark grey, to contrast the surrounding white. He breathed in, then stepped onto the panel.
It sank down a fraction of an inch at his weight. Suddenly a voice sang from every surface, calm and with perfect pitch: Tick-tock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, two o’clock, two-fifteen o’clock, two-fifteen. A moment later: Tick-tock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, two o’clock, two-sixteen o’clock, two-sixteen. Initiating schedule.
The man smiled tensely. He need not walk, run, or command any more. The old house knew what to do.
Tick-tock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, two—
He snapped his fingers, causing the voice to pause, then skip to the point. Payment required before proceeding. He held out his right arm, and one of the panels on the far wall slid open. A mechanical arm extended from the panel. As it came into contact with his own, silvery tendrils twisted out from holes, sealing over his elbow.
After a moment there was a buzz, followed by a series of clicks in the wall. The tendrils retreated, and as the arm folded back into the far wall, the man’s arm felt much lighter. The last of his dividends spent, he straightened, and the walls and ceiling spoke again.
Just in time, Mr. Gatson. The tendrils had identified him as the owner of this particular establishment. That was a good thing: it meant the artificial memory had not been wiped in his time away.
Two-eighteen, sang the voice. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had arrived at another day, or at a different time. The “schedule” would start whenever he expected it to.
Two-eighteen, it repeated. Then it paused, and the walls buzzed. Which schedule would you like to begin? Evening? Morning? Work? Sleep? Re-
“Final.” The words came from him without hesitation, abruptly stopping the voice. He almost thought it wouldn’t recognize the command. He almost felt fear.
Very well, came the voice. He relaxed as the floor panel behind him shifted, flipping and presenting a velvety white chair. He sat down exhaling, and wires immediately protruded from the cushions, piercing the flesh of his neck and arms. He felt almost nothing: his nerves had been removed decades ago.
Firstly, a feast, declared the voice. Ten minutes. Nutrients flooded into his body at a dangerous rate, but he did not care any more. Anything to put him at ease.
Nine minutes. He sat, waiting.
Eight minutes. He suddenly realized that he probably didn’t have eight minutes. He cleared his throat. “Next.”
The walls whirred, and the voice said: Two-twenty. Next, a bath. One minute. The wires retreated into their holes, the velvet sealed, the chair melted into the ground. He stood casually. Metal bands shot from the panel below him, binding his feet to the floor. Then the entire floor shifted, panels turning aside to allow for him to be lowered. The delicate fingers of lasers below disintegrated his clothing and he was submerged one second later in water he supposed must be scalding. He wasn’t sure what the water was supposed to do for him, but when lifted back onto the floor he found himself completely dry. He heard the walls whir in anticipation. The panels clicked back into place.
He could also hear a faint thudding, the sound of buildings and roads shattering, a distant hum. Little enough time; better not to be taken by the storm. For a split second, he praised his own precision in arriving at the right time.
Then he said, “next.”
Soft white cloths flew from the wall and enveloped his naked body, and the metal bands in the floor retreated. Two-twenty-two, sang the voice. Time for a song.
Rumbling, and in his mind’s eye the man could see the fires churning, destroying. He thought he felt the ground shift, and guessed it wasn’t a product of the house’s design.
A melody broke the thunder, soft as rain at the beginning of a storm. It came from every surface, as the voice had. The replicated sounds of harp strings and piano keys and violin and a half dozen other instruments seeped through the walls and floor. The man felt his eyes close. He loved this song—he knew it from childhood: the Grand Harping. It had been one of the few still legal for reproduction in the nation before the collapse.
He let it play on. One minute, two minutes, five. It was glory: everything he wanted, poured like liquid silver into a mold of limited time. The thunder was a harmony, the hum of the storm a perfect pitch to match the tune. Ten minutes. The song crescendoed, crashing down, filling his mind, satisfying his final wish, his final thirst.
Then the growing roar of the storm overtook it.
Shocked out of memory, he raised a hand. The song still played silently under the storm, and would for minutes more if allowed. He had mere seconds. “Next!” he cried. “Next! Finish me, you villain. NEXT.” The ground quaked, and he knew the voice was speaking all around him, though the words evaded his mind as if sucked away and into the encroaching storm.
But he felt it working. Metal bands flew from the floor and the ceiling, wrapping around his legs and neck, lifting him. He could not move, could not breathe. The walls shook, and panels splintered, tiny orbs of light shattering as metal crashed across the room. Somehow, they did not hit him. Somehow, the system continued to work. Suspended in the air like a puppet, gravity forgotten, he saw the floor and ceiling slip away, revealing twin contraptions spoken of only in legends.
At the exact moment the storm wall overtook Jak Gatson’s house, equal magnetic forces above and below him popped into existence, and the steel in his veins and limbs broke apart into mere particles, shattering and shattering again, leaving the body, and the broken husk of a man long dead blew away on the winds of the storm.