Richard Kadrey is the author of six novels, including Angel Scene, Butcher Bird, and the quintessential cyberpunk novel Metrophage. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies, as well as the magazines Asimov’s, Interzone, Omni, and Wired.
“Still Life With Apocalypse” first appeared in the webzine The Infinite Matrix. The version that appears here is revised and slightly expanded.
Kadrey says that the story came from a dream image of horse carcasses being dragged from canals under industrial lights. He took that image and turned it into a snapshot of life after everything has fallen apart–about the people left behind and the jobs they do to fill their days, about the poor slobs who have to clean up the mess at the end of the world
The entire text of this story appears here courtesy of the author.
Still Life with Apocalypse
by Richard Kadrey
They’re dragging another horse from the canal, it’s chestnut coat sheened bubblegum pink from the freon. Each night, more pools bubble to the surface from deep underground. Freon. Old engine oil. Heavy water from forgotten nukes. Every day, a few dozen more hungry animals drown in the stagnant pools.
Loose-limbed in death, the horse sways, rag-like, as the little diesel crane pulls it noisily from the muck and sets in on the pier with the other bodies. In the blue-tinted work lights, we divide the dead into human and animal, sub-divide the animals into Mammals and Other, then sub-divide the Others into Vertebrates and Invertebrates, and so on.
I started out on Information Retrieval, looking for documents in submerged government offices, old libraries and bookstores. Once, I came up in a police records vault, surrounded by mug shots and photos of murder scenes and rapes. I came up in an IRS office where a dissatisfied citizen had gutted an auditor, then placed the bureaucrat’s viscera on a photocopier. I swam through hundreds of grainy duplicates of his liver and intestines. I came up in adult bookshops and bought back waterlogged sex toys and old issues of Wet & Messy Fun. Bring back anything useful they said, so why not? Everything I bought back went into one big pile to be sorted by Information Classification.
I wish there had been a war, a plague or some new, grand Chernobyl. Something we could point to and say, “That’s it. That’s what killed the world.” But it wasn’t like that.
It started in New York. Or London. Mumbai, possibly. A minor traffic accident—just a fender bender—and someone missed a meeting, which meant someone else couldn’t send a fax, which made someone else miss a plane. That someone got into an argument with the cabbie and was shot. No one knows by whom. Whatever happened, the shooting sparked a riot. TV cameras broadcast the riot live to a country so knotted with fury and tension that riots broke out from Maine to Hawaii. When the footage hit the satellites, riots spontaneously exploded around the world.
In the Helinski-Vantaa airport, a group of baggage handlers and striking sex workers pushed vending machines from third floor windows into the parking lot, killing a visiting Spanish diplomat. In Shanghai, farmers and students went on a rampage, destroying the newly built ocean-front casinos, burning the buildings and tossing billions of yen into the harbor. In New Orleans, children invaded the above-ground cemeteries and dragged the dead through the streets.
Ancient national rivalries and recent jealousies surfaced. Around the world, governments went into emergency sessions. Many politicians saw the sudden eruption of violence as an attack on their citizens as the work of terrorist cells. Others claimed it was a biblical plague, Ragnarok or the early return of the Rudras.
I can’t say how long its been since the world went to pieces. All the clocks seem to have stopped. A couple of kids built a sundial, but with half the cities in the world still burning the sky is mostly a swirling soup of ash. We keep warm by looting the libraries I used to wade through, burning first the old periodicals, then the card catalogs, bestsellers and self-help books, finally working our way up to the first editions.
Some days, the sky bursts open and rains fish. Sometimes stones or Barbie dolls. Last night, I cooked a sky salmon over an autographed copy of The Great Gatsby. I shared the fish with Natasha, a mute girl who runs one of the cranes, hauling carcasses from the freon pools. She’s been staying with me out by the docks, in the cargo container I commandeered. I killed a man to get the container and still have to slice and dice the occasional house crasher. Natasha’s not shy with a knife or length of rebar and has done more than a few intruders herself. I assume the ones she did were intruders. Anyway, it keeps us in meat.
I’m not sure that you’d call what we have a typical romance. I live with a girl who can make gloves from a poodle’s hide and scavenges boots and clothes for me, and they’re always my size. She grows herbs in a bathtub on the roof and decorates our home with wind-up toys and parts of smaashed statues from looted museums. I miss ice cream, convertibles and going to the movies. I’m not fool enough to say that I’m happier since the world went away, but except for the rains of stones, I’m no more miserable.
They found a layer of zoo animals under the collapsed roadway of the Williamsburg Bridge. People over there have been living large on elephant steaks and giraffe burgers. The local government wants us to help gather up the remaining body parts, so we do. No one asks why. It’s something to do. Besides, the paper pushers refuse to let the world end until every form is turned in, timestamped and properly initialed. Apocalypse is the last gasp of bureaucracy.
After dinner, Natasha and I sit on top of the cargo container watching a field full of cop cars sink slowly into a newly risen tar pit. Everyone from the docks is there. We give might Whoop! as the last car slides, bubbling, below the surface.
Will the last person on the planet please turn off the lights?
– END –