London, 2209 – 276 Years Before Impact Day
It started the same as any typical day. She slept in, ate an unhealthy breakfast in the early afternoon, dragged her guitar into the city centre and busked. When her throat was sore and her fingers were throbbing, she ate another greasy meal, and went to work.
Work consisted of sitting behind a counter in a cheap hotel, maintaining a presence, answering emails and calls that came once every few hours, and helping the people that came in looking for a room. She was lucky to see more than one of them a night.
She liked the quiet, though. The city was bright and noisy, full of people and advertisements. Are you happy with the way you look? Our new gene therapy works 50% faster, giving you the body you always dreamed of.
Gene mods for naturally blue hair, for silver eyes, for naturally pale skin. Was it kind of racist to want that last one? She tried not to think about it. She wanted to look like a goth pixie. It helped her earn money when busking.
She spent most of the day surrounded by all of that noise. She made some of that noise. People going by, hundreds, thousands of them. All of them different, all of them beautiful.
There was something very relaxing about boxing herself in, leaning back in a chair behind a desk, munching on a steady supply of chips. There was always music playing, though it was set so nobody else could hear it. The music was hers, she controlled it, it helped her feel quiet.
Work was good. The pay was poor, the hours sucked, but it suited her. It was perfect for her.
There was a man, sitting in the lobby, not paying attention to her. She hadn’t noticed him come in. He hadn’t spoken to her. He didn’t make a sound at all. Far too well dressed for the kind of establishment he’d wandered into. He seemed occupied reading something. She was content to let him be.
A lot of nothing. Peace, quiet, respite from the world outside.
Then they entered.
Three of them, two adults and one child. Not so well dressed. Looked kind of desperate. Much more appropriate.
She gave them her warmest smile, keeping her curiosity to herself. Despite their clothing, all three of them were staggeringly beautiful. They could easily have been supermodels. There was something about them, the way they moved, that wasn’t quite human. Perhaps they were angels, she joked to herself.
Was it a family? A couple and their child? There wasn’t a strong familial resemblance, but that didn’t mean much. The dynamic seemed off, though.
He approached first. Fair skin, dark hair, deep amber eyes. He smiled awkwardly, a look of pain and regret. Was she reading too much into it? Probably.
“Welcome,” she said, taking her feet off the counter. “Need a room?”
“Please,” he replied.
“How many nights?” she asked, running through the availability. There were a lot of free rooms.
“How many beds?”
He glanced back over his shoulder. The woman shrugged. Same fair skin, short blonde hair, eyes that couldn’t decide if they were ice-blue or a fierce red. That was a neat trick.
“Just the one,” he said. “We can rotate.”
“You got it,” she said, shrugging. It didn’t particularly matter to her. “Need a name to put the room under. Names for all three of you, actually. And ID.”
The two adults exchanged a glance. Discomfort? Irritation? Fear? It was difficult to tell. She didn’t really mind. She’d expected that to be an issue. It frequently was. It was just that kind of establishment.
“That could be difficult,” he said.
“Let’s start with names,” she said, smiling. She had no intention of denying them a place to stay. They looked like they needed it.
“John,” he said. “John Smith.”
She nodded, hiding her smirk, and typed it in.
“Jane Smith,” the woman said.
She looked down at the child, a slender girl with porcelain skin, lilac hair and kind lavender eyes.
“Alice,” the girl said. “Ma-”
“Smith,” the man said. “Her name is Alice Smith.” He and the woman both stared, but she didn’t challenge them. Their situation was none of her business.
“Three Smiths. Makes it easy. In fact, it looks like you’ve stayed here before. I can just use the information we have on file. And… you’re good to go. Room twelve, first floor. Here’s your key.”
The three of them smiled, and John collected the key. Roxie smiled as she watched them disappear into the stairwell. The way they moved was odd, even the girl. There was a sort of fluid grace to it, like an animation that was just a little too smooth. The adults were almost predatory in their movements, whilst the girl just seemed… unsettlingly solid, Roxie decided. Like nothing could move her if she didn’t want to be moved.
She didn’t give them a lot of thought once they were out of her sight. Their business was their own, and she’d certainly encountered weirder customers. They were polite, and that was all she really cared about.
The man in the lobby continued to read, ignoring her. Something about him made her feel uncomfortable, like something bad was going to happen. Even still, she didn’t want to say anything. He had an aura of unapproachability that seemed unassailable.
Well, he wasn’t hurting anyone. She decided to leave him be. That worked out better for the both of them.
She looked up as the door chimed, and another person entered. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and moderately attractive at best. His face was set in a determined expression, like a poor attempt at disguising anger, frustration, or both.
He was well dressed, in what appeared to be a reasonably-priced suit, though it was also obvious he was carrying a weapon. He didn’t seem to be trying to hide it at all. It made her feel intensely uncomfortable, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it.
“Good evening,” he said, with forced courtesy that felt entirely unnatural.
“Uh, hey,” she said, then remembered she was supposed to be professional. “Lookin’ for a room?”
She frowned. He wasn’t exactly making a good first impression. Something about him felt off, like he was broken somehow.
“O…kay? What can I do for you, then?”
“I’m looking for some friends of mine,” he said, his eyes scanning the lobby. He didn’t seem to notice the reading man at all.
Just tell me what you want so I can stop talking to you, she thought.
“They said they checked in here, but I don’t know their room number,” the man said. She’d never heard a more obvious lie in her life, but she knew better than to outright call him out on it.
“So message ‘em,” she said. “Call ‘em.”
“They’re currently offline.”
“Then I can’t help ya,” she replied, shrugging. “Sorry.”
“It’s very important,” he insisted, leaning on the counter. His blue eyes were staring intensely at her, and she really, really wanted him to go away.
“So are the rules.”
He sighed, clearly annoyed. She felt a certain sense of pride in that.
“Can you at least tell me if you’ve seen them?” he asked.
He stared at her, his face twitching in an effort to hide a scowl. After a few seconds, he reached into his coat. She flinched, but he only pulled out a tablet. He pulled up a picture, and turned it around to show her.
It didn’t surprise her at all to see the three people from earlier. It did surprise her to find she felt instinctively protective of them.
“Those sure are some people.”
“Gabriel, Zoe and Alice,” he said, not breaking eye contact. It was very disconcerting.
“You’re lying,” he accused her, tucking the tablet back into a pocket.
She felt frightened, cringing at the unspoken threat under his words. Even still, her dislike of him was strong enough that she felt like she wanted to get in his way as much as possible.
“Does it matter?”
“I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation,” he said.
“Well, you just told me you were only looking for some friends, so…”
“They’re very dangerous.”
“I try not to judge,” she said, with a lot more levity than she felt. The sense of danger was intensifying, and there was nowhere she could go.
“If you don’t start taking this seriously…”
Her heart skipped a beat.
“Those three people, they’re fugitives,” he said. “I’m trying to bring them in, but I need your help.”
“One of them is a kid,” she pointed out. “What’d she do, push someone in a playground?”
“She’s their captive,” he said, but the lie was still obvious. Even if she hadn’t seen them all together, he was just a bad liar.
“She seemed pretty happy to me.”
“So you did see them.”
“Still doesn’t matter,” she said. “I can’t tell you anything.”
His face contorted into a snarl. She instinctively backed away.
“You’re endangering countless lives,” he told her. “Is your petty service job really worth that?”
“Idiot,” he growled.
“Well now I really want to help you,” she said dryly. “What were those names again?”
“Get out of my way. I’ll check myself.”
“Yeah, or not,” she retorted.
Without warning, he vaulted over the counter, shoving her backwards. Her back hit the wall, and the force of it winded her. There wasn’t anything she could do as he took over her computer, checking through the recent bookings.
“Room 12. Thank you,” he said, without a trace of irony.
“You’re breaking the law, you know,” she threatened him.
“I’m saving the world.”
He started to leave, walking towards the stairwell. She found herself overcome with the urge to do something, anything to stop him.
Inspiration struck, and she tapped a button on the screen, opening a communication line with room 12.
“Guys, this is Roxie. You’re about to have company.”
The man’s fist slammed into the screen, shattering it. His expression was pure fury.
“Oh, you stupid kid.”
“Feel free to report me,” she said, with a lot more bravado than she was feeling.
“You spoke to them,” he said, pulling out his pistol. “You’re infected.”
“Say what now?”
“It’s too late for you.”
He’s really going to shoot me…
He pulled the trigger, and her world went dark.
* * *
The world didn’t stay dark. Rather, her vision returned almost immediately, and everything was exactly the way it was before the gunshot. Nothing had changed.
No, that wasn’t entirely true. There was one new addition: her body, lying on the ground beneath her. The man who’d shot her looked right through her, completely expressionless, completely oblivious to her presence. He holstered the gun, then took off towards the stairwell.
“Uh, what?” she said, to anyone who might have been listening.
“You’re dead,” the reading man said, catching her entirely off-guard. She whirled around to face him. He’d stood up, and was slowly walking towards her.
“Who the Hell are you?” she demanded.
“Felix,” he said. “I’m a Reaper.”
“We collect the souls of the dead,” he explained.
“Which is me.”
Saying it aloud, she felt disturbingly calm. The realisation wasn’t lost on her. She somehow knew, unequivocally, that she was dead. Why didn’t that bother her?
“You catch on fast.”
He smiled gently. It meant nothing to her.
“I just got shot, it’s not that hard to wrap my head around.”
His smile broadened.
“I wish all my collections were like you.”
She looked around, wondering why everything looked the same. Even raising her hands in front of her face, they looked the same as they always did. They felt the same as they always did. If not for the body lying on the floor, she might have found it harder to accept.
She didn’t feel dead at all.
If anything, she felt hungry.
“Doesn’t feel like I expected,” she said.
“It never does.”
“So, what happens now?”
“Now, you come with me,” he said, the smile finally faltering.
Roxie frowned, then took a step away from him.
“Is there an option B?” she asked, without hope.
“No,” he said flatly.
“Well that sucks.”
“It’s not as bad as you think,” he said, in what she assumed was supposed to be a reassuring tone, but wasn’t.
“No eternal punishment and damnation?”
“Not unless that’s what you want.”
“So what am I in for?” she asked, still eying him warily.
“Depends on what you’re expecting,” he said.
She tried not to let his vagueness irritate her. It wasn’t successful.
“Not really expecting much of anything, to be honest.”
“It’s going to be rather dull, then,” he said, with a bemused smile. She prayed he was joking.
“Two decades of life and all I get is a bland nothing of an afterlife?” She shook her head. “Nah. No thanks.”
He put his hand against his hip, the sort of motion that would suggest he was about to draw a sword, except there was nothing hanging at his waist. Even still, he continued the drawing motion, and by the time his hand was in front of his body, there was a sword in his hand.
Roxie stared at it, her eyes wide. It was a thin, elegant weapon, with a simple hilt and a crystal vein running down the blade. And he’d pulled it out of nowhere.
“You don’t have a lot of say in the matter,” he said.
Her eyes darted to the door, and she grinned.
“Well, there is one thing I can say,” she said.
Her grin widened.
“You’ll have to catch me first.”
She vaulted over the counter, narrowly avoiding his blade. He followed, but she was already moving, racing towards the front door. It occurred to her only as she reached the door that a ghost might not be able to open a door, but then again, in that situation she imagined she could probably just pass through it.
The sensors didn’t detect her, and the door stayed close. She slammed into it, rebounding in a surreal, painless way, whirling just in time to avoid another attack from Felix and his sword. He looked moderately distressed.
She took a step back, and somehow managed to pass through the door. Nothing seemed different, except that she wasn’t actively thinking about the door.
Either way, it got her outside. She turned, and ran.
The streets were mostly empty, though that probably didn’t matter. It was obvious nobody could see her, or the well-dressed man chasing her whilst holding a sword. It would have been a rather ridiculous scene, had anyone actually witnessed it.
She wrapped a hand around a lamppost and used it to quickly change direction, hurtling down a side street. Glancing back over her shoulder to see if Felix had followed, she discovered he no longer seemed to be following her.
No, it’s too easy-
He was standing ahead of her, poised to strike. She pulled herself to a stop right before she entered his range. He lowered the sword, and sighed.
“Please, don’t make this worse on yourself.”
“How is this worse?” she asked, glancing around. She wasn’t even a little out of breath, her and though she couldn’t feel a heartbeat, somehow she still felt full of adrenaline. It was fantastic, and she had an entire world to explore.
“Let me take you to Hell,” he said, avoiding the question. “You’ll be processed, it’ll be peaceful, you’ll get to move on.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’d rather stay here.”
How long would he keep chasing her? Did he have other souls to collect? Would he call in reinforcements? Were there others like him?
“You’ll decay,” he said, which gave her pause.
“Surely you have ghost stories here.”
She glanced around the side street again. If she doubled back, she could probably stay ahead of him for another few streets.
“Ooh, do I get to be a vengeful spirit? That sounds way better.”
She shifted her weight, ready to run. Not yet, though.
“Y’know, I never actually told you my name,” she said.
“I already knew it,” he replied, sounding tired. “Part of the job.”
“And who put you in charge, anyway?”
She was almost far enough away to safely make a break for it. Just a little further…
The name sent an involuntary chill down her spine.
“Okay, now I’m really not coming with you,” she said.
“You really don’t have a choice.”
She started to run, but he was already in front of her. Too late to stop, she all but ran into the tip of his blade.
To her surprise, there was no pain as he thrust forwards, driving the sword through her heart. It didn’t feel like nothing, but it certainly didn’t hurt. If anything, it was like a physical sensation of intense nostalgia, mixed with the feeling of falling a great distance, and longing for something far away.
There was no sense of the world fading out around her. Everything just ended abruptly, gone in an instant. She never even noticed. The moment the sword touched her, her existence ended.
Next Week: Dying Was The Easy Part