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The Choice

The change started somewhere over the Pacific. The first to lose contact were the flights over the ocean and the shipping vessels. The connection wasn’t lost, but there was no response. Air traffic control detected planes approaching the Americas from the west, although they discovered significant deviation from the expected course of each machine. The initial mass hysteria caused by the speculation about terrorist attacks was replaced by amazement as the fighter pilots of several states confirmed that there were no people in the cabins. The planes didn’t change course and were only shot down if they approached large cities or military installations. Rescue teams did not recover any bodies from the wreckage, and the sites were closed down soon after.

In the meantime, investors in Europe and the Americas were surprised by the lack of activity on the Tokyo exchange. All attempts to reach colleagues or partners on-site were unsuccessful. The initial concerns for a market crash and a hacker attack led to sharp moves in the stock price of major companies. After that, however, brokers noted activity on some japanese portfolios, even though communication was still non-existent.

Reports of a meltdown in a nuclear power plant in China followed. None of the high diplomats or other government officials responded to requests for comment. Eclipsed by this, the lack of television coverage of the Cricket World Cup from Australia went unnoticed.

Two hours before sunrise, the large European capitals were woken up by their missile attack alarms going off. The systems that had to deal with the missiles had trouble locking onto them, as the size of the incoming explosives turned out to be much smaller than expected. After an emergency recalibration, the targets were acquired and destroyed. The military identified the remnants as originating from a shipment of land-to-air missiles hijacked in the middle east in the last week. This remarkable fact, however, did not reach the news because dawn came over Europe.

Somewhere in the mountains of middle Africa, a small village waited in terror the arrival of a group of mercenaries from the town to the east. When no one came, the villagers went out to thank the gods for sparing them. With eyes cast to the east, on the sun rising over the horizon, and the forest, in which the mercenaries could be hiding, they raised their arms in gratitude, then vanished in thin air.

The day was hardest on the Americans, who gradually lost contact with the rest of the world. A state of emergency was announced in most countries after the full collapse of the financial and stock markets and losing all contact (although the Internet was still up) with anyone east of the mainland. With the next sunrise over the east coast, the blackout took over the American cities as well, with phones ringing, but no one picking them up. The zone of silence, as they dubbed it, was moving to the west. In a morning talk show, the anchor vanished in front of the camera, and this released the penned up hysteria and aggression of the people living on the west coast. After a few short hours of civil war and vandalism, the sunrise caught up with them too. The shouts of people disappeared, while gunshots and other noises continued. There was no one to hear them.

The Earth had made one full revolution around its axis. Humanity had made its first choice.

***

Several periods of light and dark had passed since the small lizard had last had anything to eat. It had used up everything edible in the small space that it was allowed to roam. The hunger got stronger and stronger, and the lizard was desperately trying to climb the smooth rock that could be seen through so that it could find food outside its prison. Deep behind the instincts of the animal, a desperate spirit hid, resigned from trying to affect the lizard’s actions. The mind of the animal had won the battle almost two days ago. Now the spirit could only endure the agony along with the lizard.

The unseen rays of the sunrise caressed the spirit and caused in it the familiar euphoria of the freedom to choose: to be a part of the world, in union with everything in it, or not. To be, or not to be?

Is this life? Thought the spirit, and for the first time in five days, it chose to cease to be, so that it would not feel the terrifying hunger and the mounting fatigue of the desperate animal trying to escape.

The sixth-grader Peter materialized in front of his iguana’s glass tank, where the sunrise had found him five days earlier. His legs gave way, and he crashed to the floor, crying out. His tears ran freely while the agony and the hunger slowly bled out of his soul. After a while, he managed to stand up and wobbled over to the corner where he kept the food for the lizard. His shaking hands tore open a fresh pack, and he dumped it all in the tank. He watched the small lizard eat as his hunger itself shrank to a manageable level.

His eyes scanned his room. It all felt like an eternity ago: a bed, a desk with a laptop, the wardrobe, the table with the glass tank, a couple of cupboards with games, shelves of books. They all felt so distant and useless now when he knew the wild and motivating hunger. His school bag stood on the floor next to the bed.

He could now think like a human again, and the realization of the five days he had spent as part of the iguana’s mind was slowly coming into focus.

“Mum!” He shouted and stormed down the hallway towards his parents’ room. They were probably mad with worry for him.

The room was empty, the large bed unmade. Peter’s mother’s purse stood on the chair as usual. He ran back, glanced into the empty bathroom, and barged into the kitchen. No one greeted him. The table was almost ready for breakfast. On the stove, the old kettle was whistling, enveloped in a cloud of steam. The door to the terrace was open, and the laundry obscured the view. The same laundry that Peter remembered from five days ago.

The hissing of the kettle was deafening, and he moved to slide it off the heating plate. As his hand entered the steam, he jumped back with a shout of pain. His mind, still slow after the transformation,  started registering the details of the scene.

The steam formed a perfect semi-sphere around the metal pot and wouldn’t move away. It swirled like the cyclones on weather maps on the news, then turned and went around the teapot, and finally entered it through the crack around the lid, only to appear back from the spout with an angry hiss. Peter stared at the strange shape until the pain in his hand got too strong to ignore. He glanced at the boils that were starting to cover his skin, then looked at the dial of the hot plate. It showed that the plate was off. The kettle was boiling water and sucked it back in again, all on its own.

A slow terror grew inside him as he backed out of the kitchen. His mind revisited stories of ghosts, aliens, and other ridiculous things as he called out for his parents again. His feet led him to the bathroom, and the promise of cold water for his hand. He stood in front of the sink and turned the tap. The sharp cold ran a shiver through him, but he kept his hand under the water. Then he looked up in the mirror.

His father looked back at him.

Peter stared at the familiar face, covered in shaving foam, already shaven on one side, the unruly graying hair, the sweatshirt. His father gaped back as if seeing him for the first time.

“Dad?” Whispered the boy, then called louder and louder, until he started shouting again, hitting the mirror, all pain forgotten. The image mirrored his movements.

Peter’s fear and rage drained gradually, and he just stood there, his teary eyes burning a hole in the mirror. Maybe he had aged as much as his father during the time in the iguana? But he had his old clothes, his own hands, he didn’t have shaving foam on his face, he wasn’t even as tall as his dad. Only the mirror had changed. A desire to smash the thing burned bright inside him, to punish the lying image when he needed his father so much. He raised the bottle with the liquid soap with his healthy hand and hurled it with all his strength. The heavy plastic hit the center of the mirror with a loud, tinkling sound, and cracks ran from the spot in all directions. Then, as in slow motion, the cracks mended and disappeared while the bottle rolled in the sink below, admitting failure in its mission of destruction. Peter watched in terror the unbroken mirror; his father’s face looked back with a hint of disapproval.

Stunned, the boy opened the front door of the flat and walked down the stairs without thinking. On the first floor, the door of the elevator stood open without visible support, the handle gently bumping against the wall. Peter walked out on the sidewalk and propped himself on the nearest tree, his eyes staring ahead without seeing anything.

The sound of steps appeared behind him, the sharp noise of high heels hitting the pavement. He turned around, but there was no one there. The sound grew louder and louder, coming from the pavement itself. It passed by and moved towards the center of the city. From the same direction came the rumble of a car, monotonous and insistent, then the old car of one of the neighbours appeared around the corner. It moved along the street, passing Peter by, slow enough for the boy to see that there was no one behind the wheel. Behind it, keeping its distance was another car. It was empty, too, with an empty baby chair fixed on the back seat. The two vehicles moved as if connected with an invisible string, never changing the distance or speed. The neighbour’s car turned around the block on its usual route, the second following suit. The rumble of engines died away, replaced by the chirping of a bird in the branches of the tree that kept Peter standing. Then a gentle gust of wind brought the approaching sound of the high heels. The boy’s consciousness fell apart under the strain of the mad new world, and he slid down the tree, just laying there, while the bird above broke into song.