The dark man was hunched over his desk. It too was dark. The windows that spanned the horizon did not let in the sun from the desert, for it had long since slept. The glinting windows of the rest of the facility — the University and military outpost — if they had any shine left, were long behind him, even farther away from where the sun had set beneath its retreating fault line.
The only light was from a dull bulb hanging loosely in his shed. A shed; such an odd and removed place to be making this decision. The wiring was not even in-built but stapled, dangling precariously along the rough drift wood walls. The desert and the world howled outside, and the yells bit at him through the splintered wood. There were papers strewn about on the table, etched delicately with sprawling schematics. A clock ticked — hummed, more like it — in one of the dark oblivious corners of the room. How odd, he thought, how odd for them to have left the decision to me. A mere apprentice under the other masters. He knew all of them — he didn’t just admire them. He had looked up to them his whole life. He had photographs of them on the wall, he had read about them in the textbooks. And then he had met them. And then they had chosen him — he was ultimately, now, the one sitting. And waiting. And watching. He was the one really to make the decision. Because whatever his orders were, it wouldn’t matter. It would be him to flick the switch. And, either way, he would be the greatest man of all time. Either way.
Aside from the table there was a small control panel. It was just a small box of sheet metal, stamped from one piece; the corners were pulled around themselves and revealed little gaps at the corners. On top was a switch. A small, delicate, analog, mechanical switch. What a small thing — like a perching locust — for such a decision.
But he was happy — he was just now realizing. No, he had always known, he was just now admitting it to himself. He was happy to be the one making the decision. He felt a hot sting at the back of his neck. But now, instead of sinking, instead of wrenching down and then festering in his gut, it tickled up the back of his head, his neck. It was almost euphoric. There was nobody watching him. No bullies, no disappointments, no girls whispering and staring in the halls. No parents, to say so and so if you don’t. And then, once he did, to say they were so proud; as if it had ever been him; as if he had ever had a choice. No professors, no cutthroat classmates. No percentages posted on the bulletin board, open, and no eyes staring into his back when he went to see his name, halfway down on the list. Or even second from the top. Second from the top was worse. Anyone of those eyes could be the burning ones, weighted like molten rocks placed just in the crooks of his shoulders, burrowing their way down. He gritted his death. They seemed worse in the memories. It stung worse in the memories; precisely because he remembered them. He remembered all of them. But now, he would not be taken anywhere, or have to do anything. He was in control. And he could only ever be wholly right, wholly in charge — for even if we was wrong, in this moment, nobody would ever know. Lest even himself.
The feeling swarmed through his shoulders and to the backs of his eyes, like a million honey butterflies licking at his skin, hotly, from underneath. His hands were firmly on the roughen wood table, sweat from the excitement — almost sexual — spilling from his palms and onto the papers. When he lifted his arm to move it further to the switch it felt light, airy. He felt beautiful for the first time in his life. Not smart, not accomplished, not working always for this approval. But beautiful. He felt like he was a force of nature. The force of nature — the only one to really matter. Because whatever it was, for the rest of time, he would have done it.
The importance of his own fingers struck him so strongly, shooting like an orgasm straight to his brain, that he had flicked it, instinctively out of desperation, almost before he had really decided. The switch clicked. The sound was so small, so delicate, and yet its power echoed through the stale desert air. The signal rushed down its lone wire in the sand, nearly at light speed. His eyes moved, in slow motion, to the windows. The sky erupted. The darkness became pure sun; the air warmed itself like a blister; flames leapt up all around him; the wood seared and crumbled to black dust. The glass now shattered — all this in a mere instant. The world was dark.
He felt pulled, a long way off, as his consciousness fleeted from him. It was like his whole body was caught on a grand fishing line, that pulled him into some black matrices underlying everything else; out of the real world altogether. He entered a dreamless hallucination of pure black — of smoke, of shadows themselves, dancing, as he slept, like under drugs, and he only caught glimpses. He awoke. It was much later. The sky still was dark. From some positions, in some flaming motions, blistering light cast down in flares. The stars shone as bright above as car headlights a few feet away. The air seemed to be nothing more than a weak mist clinging to the desert floor — which had been transformed, and was now as smooth as glass, as straight as still water, as blue and as cold as ice. What was left of the air glittered a sort of purple. He was standing on only an asteroid left, the whole atmosphere having been consumed. The sun peaked over the far corner, and seared everything in its path — as well as his skin. He stood. He seemed unharmed — not even a broken bone. He looked around himself. It couldn’t be, it was impossible. They had said the new Bomb might light the whole atmosphere on fire. And it appeared it did. But how then was he standing here? It should have killed every living thing on Earth — leaving no evidence. He tried to sigh, but found himself unable. He clutched at his own throat for breath. It felt pulled away from him. He could only stare in deadly silence. His own noises, the noises from inside of him, seemed deathly small. He looked out in every direction as his eyes began to bulge, but there was no-one, nothing else. He could see straight off, at either side, to the edge of the Earth and out to the stars. He crashed into the glass floor, which did not crack, but blocked him like chilled concrete. He rubbed his temple against its freezing surfaces, feeling life slip from him. Unable to breathe. Clutching, gasping; knowing this must be the end. He closed his eyes.
And then opened them. The moment of pain, of lungs swelling and heaving to say they would collapse or burst themselves, continued. He contorted for breathe, but, when none came, kept seizing. How was he still alive? At his feet, he saw shrivelled splinters — each of them no larger than a twig — the blackened remnants of the shack. He looked down now to his own skin. He was still wearing his clothes, which were not even stained by ash. He felt his hand along his own scalp; his hair still rested on his head, still combed. He heaved again for breathe. It did not come, but somehow, he continued — in agony of suffocation. He walked. Each step shot like fire through his blood. Each stress was using all the energy he had left in his life system, more than it, and every time his foot hit the ground, he felt like death, like collapsing. He felt it all leaving him. And then, in an instant, it would come back. He would move on, always at the threshold of a painful death. He walked back to the rest of the campus, slowly, like this. It could have taken him years. He seemed to not need air or food or water any longer. But he still felt he needed them — he suffered the withering away of his body, of his life, without it really leaving him. He looked through the land of pure sea glass, the sand burned by the whole weight of the world consuming it. Only a few scorched stones of the building remained. Inside the crystal floor, shadows lurked. They moved with deep perspective. He collapsed, pressing his eyes close to make them out (and heaving for breathe, for food, for water again). Twisted skulls, blackened and twisted and shrunk — like coal lumps with eye sockets — were suspended in the hard sea. Splintered bones, some with the humps of the vertebrae, were strewn about, in no orderly fashion. Being flung, and consumed by a melting earth. Hundreds, only here. He collapsed on his back, and looked into the stars. His body convulsed without him telling it to. His ribs cut against his skin, stretched so thin by starvation they nearly cut through. He silently gasped for breath, silently, because there was none left. He pulled his own hair out. He scratched at his eyes. He felt pain, but nothing hurt. Nothing killed him. He looked at the bare stars, beaming terrible light straight into him. He prayed to die. His eyes crumbled into tears, but none came; there was no water in his body left, and yet, he was not dead.
Janelle tapped on the glass orb. The static blend of projections tickled, rippled — only slightly — under her finger. The shadowy figure inside was still crumpled at the bottom of the sphere, tentacles of steel and copper and fibre optics splayed about him, his abdomen rocking back and forth as he wept — in his own world, silently. “How… how long?” She whispered, nearly to herself. But the General, behind her, heard: “Our best guess is — an hour here is a day in there. It’s like dreams. They’re longer.”
“He’ll be in a destroyed world. A world he destroyed. Unable to eat, to breathe, to sleep, to drink, to cry. Unable to die. Until he does. Until he really does.”
“You’ll keep him in there all this time. That’s, that’s—”
“Yes. To him, it’ll feel like hundreds of years. An eternity. An eternity in hell.”
“How could you…”
“How could we? How could we? This program is the only reason you and I are still here, Ms. James. How could he. He knew the risks, and he pressed the button anyways. He didn’t believe it was a simulation. He pressed the button anyways, knowing — and he killed 10 billion people. Wouldn’t hell seem fit for that?”
“But he didn’t.”
The General frowned at her, “Maybe not to you. But he did, Ms. James. He would’ve. He would’ve. How many would’ve…. There’s no room anymore, anyplace in our world, for people like this. We can only thank God that, now, we can catch them. It only takes one. It only takes one in the real world.”
He left her standing there, dancing her fingers on the edge of the orb that had become the young engineer’s cell.
The general walked away from her, across the platform, up the stairs, passed a thousand more orbs, containing thousands more of those silent screams. He counted out of the corner of his eye, hoping that all who needed to be in there were. Not a single one less. He could only whisper to himself, “How many would’ve…” He shivered.