four short story openings inspired by the now

1

One of the more impressive features of modern videoconferencing software, when you think about it, is the echo cancellation. The microphone you're talking into, and the speakers you're listening to, are right next to each other on the same device, a set-up that would, without post-processing, rapidly degrade to a hideous squealing mess, but when you load up Zoom, or Google Meets, there's little of that.

There is, occasionally, a weird artefact of the post-processing, though: a sort of rhythmic series of taps, generated from the software ever so slightly missing the beginning of the sound it's trying to cut out, which the gets amplified, and repeated, on a steady loop. The first time I heard it on a zoom call, I asked a friend of a friend who was in the meeting – the only person whose home I did not know well – if he had stone floors in his house. It was that sort of sound, like footsteps echoing down a long stone corridor.

Eventually, you get used to the clack clack clack of the ghost in the machine walking down the stone hallway of echoes. Eventually, you stop commenting on it when it shows up in your chats. Eventually, you don't even look around when the staccato footsteps begin to sound, not just through your headphones, but from outside your headphones.

That's what they're waiting for.

2

We weren't expecting the renewed lockdown to be so sudden, nor so absolute, he and I. The first lockdown had come on gradually, and been well signposted, and when they lifted the restrictions they told us we could mostly live our lives as we wanted, but to stay alert for a potential second wave.

So I invited him round for a catch-up drink. We'd always been close, of course, but never close-close, you know? So I don't know why he was the first person I thought of seeing, nor why he so readily accepted. I impressed him with my collection of weird beers, gathered over a couple of months of orders direct from breweries around the city, and we sat and chatted while dinner bubbled.

Then our phones went wild. Turns out they'd built the emergency notification system that we should have had last time. "Shelter in place," the messages read. We weren't to leave the building we currently occupied, even if it wasn't home. There was some stuff about what you should do if you weren't able to safely inhabit where you currently were, with a recommendation that you register for help if you don't have at least a week's supply of food.

A week! He's stuck here for a week, and there's only one bed.

3

Magic works through ritual, habit and practice, the letter to parents read, and though the able efforts of our matron may suggest otherwise, the school no more possesses a panacea than it does the secret to eternal life.

The similarities of this disease to others against which our halls are already inoculated means that our enchanters are quite confident that they should be able to update the charms around the building within the next few months, but it is looking increasingly likely that the students will not be able to return for a summer term.

Some parents from non-magical backgrounds have requested we look into a "Zoom" for the remote learning curriculum, with complaints about the number of owls entering and leaving urban buildings becoming rather conspicuous.

Regrettably, our direct of education projects insists that the animal visitors are non-negotiable, but parents who are interested may write to the school to receive the hourly deliveries via rat instead, who will enter through the plumbing network. Early tests suggest it is extremely effective, and almost impossible for the neighbours to spot, although we do recommend keeping an ample supply of towels next to the lavatory. Towels which you do not intend to use again.

It went on for some pages, detailing all the various arcane procedures – both literal and figurative – that the headmistress was applying to ensure that our education wouldn't be harmed by the pandemic.

There was no official letter to students – it apparently being felt that the news was better delivered to 11-18 year olds by their parents – but Miss Steamshanks had finagled a handwritten note for each member of her class anyway.

Dear Jamie, she wrote in mine, school's cancelled. Please stay out of trouble?

4

There's a definite downgrading of apocalypses, you know? For the longest time, we all agreed we were heading for a real one: proper fire and brimstone shit, the heavens cracking open, four horsemen leading a host. Even when secularism took over, that apocalypse stayed with only minor modifications. Man, not God, cracked the heavens open, giant fungal manifestations of his foolishness peppering the sky, any host evaporated with the rest of civilisation.

Then the budget cuts began to take hold in our imagination. Buildings are too mighty, they won't get destroyed in the apocalypse, it must be organic in nature. What about zombies? Still got that nice mankind-turning-on-itself feeling, but more down-to-earth, more visceral. Well, more viscera, at least.

Or just the downfall of capitalism. Why even bother imagining people turning feral when some numbers on a computer going the wrong way can already bring down everything we hold dear? It's not exactly visual, but it's the end of a world, that's for sure.

Gibson's was a shift sideways. The jackpot: what if there wasn't one shitty apocalypse, but a dozen, each shaving away at a portion of humanity? Don't strain the imagination of the unbelievers, who can't conceive, anymore, of a single event bringing down everything. But throw the pandemic, the crash, the war, the… well, not actually the zombies, but everything else, at the wall, all at once. 

But real life was shittier still. Just a real garbage apocalypse. Millions dead, yes, but out of billions. Our lives changed, but not because the old ways were destroyed for good. Instead, after so long inside, we just stayed that way. It wasn't really fear. We all new the virus had burned itself out, even if the absence of a vaccine meant that it took years rather than the months we were hoping. And yes, the second-order effects were bad: a few famines here and there, the odd city falling after critical infrastructure failures. 

But nothing anyone with any pride would call the "end of the world". 

And yet here we are. I may not be in my purpose-built vault, having survived a nuclear conflagration, with only a ham radio to connect me to the others, but how different would life be? Dad says before the deliveries were automated, he used to go outside most weeks for shopping. Before that, he used to exercise outside most days, until the oppressive judgment drove him back inside. All those eyes, peering out. Two meters is a long way on an urban pavement, and once the robots started commandeering the roads, it became more dangerous to run in the middle of the streets. So he just stopped.

Sometimes he looks at me with sad eyes.