- Published: 3 December 2019
- ISBN: 9780241983997
- Imprint: Penguin General UK
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $22.99
The post-apocalyptic thriller that will keep you up all night
Observations from L’Hôtel Sixième, Switzerland
Nadia once told me that she was kept awake at night by the idea that she would read about the end of the world on a phone notification. It wasn’t exactly Kennedy’s Sword of Damocles speech, but I remember that moment word for word.
For me, three days ago, it happened over a complimentary breakfast.
I was sitting by the window, looking out into the encroaching forest, the cleared path around the building leading to the rear parking.
There was a hum of chatter, from couples and one or two families on early checkout, but I was the first of the conference down. We had all stayed up late drinking the night before, but I tried not to deviate from routine, even if it hurt.
We weren’t supposed to be at this hotel. The conference had originally been slightly nearer Zurich, farther north. But there had been a fire at the intended venue eight months before. The move had been arranged without much fuss and the location changed to L’Hôtel Sixième, which we had joked was in the middle of nowhere. A pain in the ass to get to.
I was reading the opening chapter of What We Talk about When We Talk about Photoreconnaissance: The Legal and Performance History of Aerial Espionage, taking notes for an upcoming lecture series, and my phone was on silent.
A glass of orange juice to my left, and a black coffee. I’d spilled a little on the tablecloth in my eagerness to drink it and get a refill. I was waiting on eggs Benedict.
It’s the banality that pains me.
The last text I received from Nadia was sent at eleven thirty the night before. It said: ‘I think everyone in my line of work is doing more harm than good. How can anyone love this job anymore? I miss you so much, you always know what to say when I’m feeling like this. I feel bad about how we left it. Love you.’ I hadn’t replied to her crisis of faith because I thought I could get away with the delay. She knew the time difference meant I was probably asleep. I wanted to give it some thought and reply in the morning with something measured and reassuring. There was still a need for excellent journalism, she could still make things better . . . Something like that. An email might be better.
We all thought we had time. Now we can’t send emails anymore.
A strange noise erupted from one of the tables, a shrill exclamation. The woman didn’t say anything, just cried out.
I looked up, and she was sitting with her partner – I assume – and staring at her phone.
Like everyone else in the room, I thought she had just become overexcited by a message or a photo, and returned to my book, but within seconds she’d added, ‘They’ve bombed Washington!’
I hadn’t even wanted to go to this damn conference.
I can’t entirely remember what happened in the hours that followed, but as I started scrolling through my own phone, the push notifications and social media timelines, I realized that Nadia had been right. It played out exactly as she feared. In fact, the headlines are almost all I can remember at the moment.
BREAKING: NUCLEAR ATTACK ON WASHINGTON IN PROGRESS. STORY DEVELOPING.
BREAKING: 200,000 FATALITIES ESTIMATED, SAY EXPERTS.
BREAKING: CONFIRMED: PRESIDENT AND STAFF AMONG DEAD IN NUCLEAR EXPLOSION. AWAITING MORE INFORMATION.
Then there was some aerial footage, from London, and we all watched the buildings vanish into dust in real time, under an iconic pillar of cloud. That was the only footage available so we watched it over and over. It didn’t seem as real as the headlines. Maybe we had all been desensitized to the imagery by too many movies. Watching a whole city vaporized like that seemed too fast, and too quiet.
A plane went down on the outskirts of Berlin and we only knew Berlin was gone because someone in the plane had uploaded a video of them going down. Dust in the engines maybe. I can’t remember what she was saying; she was crying and hadn’t been speaking English. It was probably just goodbye.
BREAKING: NUCLEAR WEAPON DETONATES OVER WASHINGTON, HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS FEARED DEAD.
BREAKING: CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER CALLS FOR CALM AS NUCLEAR ATTACK HITS US.
BREAKING: US WITHOUT GOVERNMENT AS NUCLEAR BOMB DEVASTATES WASHINGTON.
Maybe I was lucky, watching the end of the world online, instead of living it, reacting to an explosion or a siren announcing one.
We’re not gone yet. This is the third day and the internet is down. I’ve been sitting in my hotel room watching what I can see of the horizon from my window. If anything happens, I’lldo my best to describe it. I can see for miles over the forest, so when it’s our turn I imagine I’ll have some warning. And it’s not like I have anyone to say goodbye to here.
I can’t believe I didn’t reply to Nadia’s text. I can’t believe I thought I had time.
I figure I should keep writing things down. The clouds are a strange color, but I’m not sure if that’s just me being in shock. They could be normal clouds.
I’ve also started checking off the days since we last had sunlight or rain. So far it’s been five.
The likelihood of Armageddon appearing on our horizon seems smaller now, but with the internet gone and our cellphones refusing to make any connection, we have no idea what’s going on in the wider world. Either way, I’m not spending the majority of my time keeping watch at my window anymore. I need to eat.
I spoke to a few acquaintances down in the restaurant, where some of the staff are still providing food. They’re going to leave on foot. I’m going to wait until someone comes for us or an official procedure for evacuation is announced. We have no way of telling when that will be. But someone will come eventually.
Day Six (2)
That was a lie, what I wrote before. I wanted to come to the conference. I was glad of the time away from Nadia and from my children. I might die soon, there’s no point lying about it now.
I’m sorry, Nadia. If you ever read this. I’m so, so sorry.
I’m not sure anybody is coming.
Weather is unchanged.
I went for a walk around the hotel and found two people who had killed themselves by hanging in the stairwell. Two men. I don’t know who they were. Dylan, the hotel’s head of security, helped me bury them out front. A few other people came to stand with us, holding candles in an impromptu vigil.
On our way back from the burial, I asked him if anyone was coming to evacuate us. He said no, probably not, but he didn’t want to panic anyone. In the meantime, at least we’re all following a routine of sorts. We come down for breakfast and dinner, and the rest of the time we hide away in our rooms.
I wonder if the bombing is still going on, whether one will hit us soon. Maybe it would be for the best. It’s the not knowing that I can’t stand.
Today was the first day I realized that I’m probably never going to see Nadia, Ruth or Marion again. Or my dad and his wife, my students, my friends. Even the people I knew at the conference have gone. They left.
I feel nauseous. I can’t tell if it’s radiation poisoning or not.
So far, no one has died of radiation poisoning.
No one is coming for us. There is definitely no evacuation.
Dylan and a couple of other men left the hotel this morning with hunting rifles and returned with deer. The assumption seems to be that we’re going to be here for a while. I counted heads this morning in the restaurant and there are twenty-four of us. There are at least two young children, and an elderly couple, one of whom can’t hear.
Is this it? I mean, for humanity. Am I the last person alive making notes on the end of the world? I’m not sure if I would rather already be dead.
Two thirty a.m., and no signal yet. The American was waiting in his cramped little room; waiting for a pulse that would tell him London was calling.
The boy gasped for breath, hair in his mouth, before the next wave slammed him back against the bottom. He tumbled, the fizz of bubbles around him.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
Discarded medical equipment litters the floor: surgical tools blistered with rust, broken bottles, jars, the scratched spine of an old invalid chair.