Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
“Fuck, it’s cold.” You would think I’d be used to it by now.
Pulling my scarf a little tighter, I take one last drag off my cigarette and flick it to the ground, crushing it underfoot. I watch as it flares for a moment — a fleeting fight for life — before quickly fading to black on the frozen ground. Last one. I had checked all the nearby shops, and there were none left. There wasn’t much of anything left after the looting. Goodbye, old friend.
I give the nearby landscape a quick once over, surveying it as I do every time I come out for a smoke. Snow. Everywhere, snow. With a great sigh, I pull the glove off my right hand, fumbling in my pocket for the photo. Their photo. It’s all I have left. My girls. I stare at it until my hand begins to burn, then gently return it to my pocket, shoving my glove back on roughly. God damn snow.
Turning around to face the building, I reach for the cold metal handle, pausing a moment to read the sign on the door.
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE
KEY WEST, FLORIDA
This used to be a forecast center. We’d sit around predicting the weather for locals and tourists alike — well, mostly the tourists. The locals could always pretty much predict the weather themselves. Warm. Sunny. Sometimes rainy, with the occasional hurricane to keep things lively. After the snow came, though, there didn’t seem to be much point in going through the motions of forecasting. We did it for a while. We thought the snow was temporary. We thought it was some weather anomaly that would evolve after a few days. Maybe a week at the outside. We were wrong. It’s only ever snow. Snow, and a balmy 28°F.
Turning the handle, I give the door a yank, and it opens with a groan. Everything is frozen these days, even the doors. The door is set in a wall of square glass panes, which have been covered with plastic and blankets, in an attempt to better insulate the building. I walk quickly through the chilly lobby. The coldest part of the building, it’s become something of a storage room. There are piles of things in disarray on either side of me — the only clear path is to the door. At the far end of the room is another door, better insulated than the first. Passing through, I close it quickly behind me. I hang my coat, scarf, gloves and hat on hooks opposite the door, and head down the hallway. Turning the corner, I enter the main part of the building. We call it the bullpen.
The building wasn’t always like this. It used to be individual offices and other rooms, but when the snow came, it changed everything — for everyone. Now, instead of sitting in our offices, forecasting the weather, we all sit at desks in one big space — for shared warmth, as much as anything else — and try to figure out what the hell happened.
Bill looks up as I enter the room, greeting me with a nod.
“How is it out there, John?” he asks.
“Oh, you know,” I reply. “Cold.”
I head for my desk — back center of the pen — and plop down in my chair, hoping my short break will have given me fresh eyes, but after six months of this, there is little chance of that. I lean back in my chair, close my eyes and rub my temples, internally reviewing what I know.
The presently accepted account of events goes like this. A little more than six months ago, on Christmas Day, by sheer chance — some complete and utter fluke — at precisely 08:17, GMT -05:00, everywhere around the world, you could hear the opening strains of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” All at once, everywhere in the world, every radio station, every internet music service, every CD player played that song. It didn’t matter if those particular people or cultures celebrated Christmas. It happened everywhere, without discrimination. Even people who hadn’t been listening to music swear their radios switched on. Crosby sang about dreaming of a white Christmas, and that’s what we did. Everyone, everywhere around the world, all at once, fell instantly asleep, and we all dreamed of a magical, snow covered world. By all accounts, we were only out for maybe three minutes, and, when we woke, it was snowing. Everywhere. All at once.
It started slowly. Beautiful, fluffy snowflakes fell like confectioners sugar from the sky, and soon everything was covered in a blanket of white. No one worried until the next day. Even in tropical places like this, on Christmas Day, the Christmas snow seemed like a Christmas miracle. In the harsh light of December 26th, though, it was just snow. And it was cold.
Now early July, it’s more than that. The world’s infrastructure has begun to collapse. For a while, the northernmost regions of the world fared well easily, but now they find themselves faltering as their goods and services from southern suppliers dry up. The closer you get to the equator, the more prevalent the death. We just weren’t prepared for anything like this. Give us a couple days of snow, and we’ll manage. But this. This is something else entirely, and people just couldn’t stay warm. Most equatorial survivors have set off on treks to naturally colder climates, in hope of salvation, but it’s not an easy journey, and many of them won’t make it. Even if they do, at this point, there’s no telling how much longer those places can hold out. Current models project a year at most.
Sitting up, I open my eyes and look around the room. There are three of us now, and nine empty desks. Those desks used to belong to people, but they all either headed north with their families, in search of hope, or perished in the cold. Or both. Bill and Marcus are old bachelors, and don’t have family to lose or protect. Sometimes, in moments of weakness, I envy them that. But not really. Most days, those memories are all that keep me going. I just want answers. Shaking my head, I try to dislodge the thoughts of my family. Must focus.
Marcus comes into the room and looks at me expectantly. That look means he’s been out to clean off the radar and get the generator going.
“Alright, guys.” I address the room. “Fire it up.”
Being so far south, we lost power early on. Luckily, Bill is an avid survivalist, and had a generator and a huge stockpile of gas on hand, not to mention food, and other supplies and equipment. He was the first one to leave home and set up shop here. He’s the reason we have heat. He’s the reason we’re still alive.
We do this once a week. There has never been anything. It’s only ever snow. I let the ritual continue, because it gives them hope. But it’s only ever snow.
“John.” Bill’s gruff voice penetrates my thoughts. “There’s something.”
I stand bolt upright. In six months, there has never been anything. It can’t be.
Thumbing the photo in my pocket, I quickly cross the bullpen and stand at Bill’s side. He points to an island northwest of us.
“Oh, my God.” The precipitation over Wisteria Island is gone. There is a break in the snow, but it doesn’t seem to be spreading. It’s like there’s a Wisteria Island-shaped hole on the screen.
“I’m going over there.” I run to the door and start to layer on my outdoor clothes. Bill and Marcus are close behind.
“John! Be reasonable. You don’t know what’s happening out there. We should continue to observe the event from here,” Bill pleads with me.
“You should continue to observe the event from here. But I am going out there.”
“John, there’s no need to risk your life for this. If we just use a little more caution, we can figure it out safely,” Marcus reasons.
“There’s no time, Marcus. Thank you both for your concern, but if the weather has changed somewhere, I need to know why. If we figure that out, maybe we can save some lives.” I finger the photo in my pocket again. I will not be swayed from this. I couldn’t save my family, but there’s a chance now that I can save others, and I won’t ignore that just to keep myself safe.
“Please understand. I have to do this.”
“Alright,” Bill sighs. “We’ll stay here and keep the radar going. Take these with you.” He hands me an assortment of gear, which I shove into my pockets.
“Please try to be safe,” Marcus adds.
I say my goodbyes and trudge out into the snow, heading toward the bight. Normally a twenty minute walk, in this weather, it takes much longer, and I have ample time to survey the carnage. I think the three of us are the only people left alive on the island. The continued snow has destroyed most buildings, and the continued cold has killed those who didn’t flee north. Bodies pepper the streets.
There is a marina at the end of the island. Like everything else, it’s in shambles. Some of the boats have receded into the water under the weight of the snow. Others have been used as vessels of attempted escape. As I approach the marina’s small office building, I see that the windows are broken, and the door stands ajar. I’m not the first to come in search of a boat. I grab a handful of the keys that remain in the office. I use the tag on each key to check the associated boat. Number 17, gone. Number 24, gone. Number 8, sunk. Number 14, gone. Number 31, maybe.
Number 31 is covered enough that it’s not completely full of snow. I clear out enough snow to climb in, prime the fuel line, shove the key in place and give it a turn. The key doesn’t budge. Damn.
I continue through the keys until I find another promising boat. Number 15. This time the key turns, but it won’t start.
Last key. Last boat. Lucky number 3. It’s full of snow, but still properly afloat. I dig out a hole near the controls and hop in. Key turns. I let the engine power up, and, heavy on the choke, I try the ignition. Nothing. I’m hopeful, though. Number three. My girls. This is the one. I try again, and the boat roars to life. Deeply relieved, I pull her gently out of the marina.
Even at my slow pace, it doesn’t take long to cross through the 600 yards of saltwater slush to the island. I beach the boat and climb out onto the shore. It is utterly bizarre. It’s like spring has come to the island. The sky is clear, and the snow is melting — but everywhere else, the snow remains. I can stick my hand out off the side of the island and catch snow. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I walk the perimeter of the island. It’s not a big island by any stretch, so it’s a quick walk. Aside from the weather, nothing seems out of place. I stare out at the water for a while, looking towards Key West. Snow. I turn around to face the central part of this small island. The snow is melting, glistening in the sunlight and sliding off the Australian pines. Christmas Tree Island, we call it.
A particularly shiny reflection catches my eye. In the sunshine, it winks at me brightly, from the very center of the island. I rush inward to investigate, navigating the thick pines as quickly as I can. I reach the middle of the island to find a metallic object sticking out of the melting snow. It’s a circle, like a wheel of sorts. I begin moving the snow away with my gloved hands. Bit by bit, the object reveals itself. Raised platform. Bigger round object beneath the wheel. Writing: RECONSTITUTION. Latches. Hinges.
It’s a door. More precisely, it’s a hatch. What the hell? I’ve been to this island so many times. This has never been here before.
I turn the wheel, and it moves easily. Pulling on it, I try opening the hatch, but it’s stuck. The seal must be frozen still. I pull with all my strength, to no avail. I give it a kick, and then sit on the platform to catch my breath. After a minute, I’m back on my feet, pulling again. With a great pop, the hatch finally gives, throwing me backwards onto the ground. I scramble to examine the now open hatch. There is a ladder leading down into the darkness. I can’t tell how far down the ladder reaches, or what I might find once I’m down there.
Fumbling with the photo in my pocket, I gather up my courage. I’ve come this far. I climb over the side of the hatch and onto the ladder, beginning my descent. As the surface light fades, I am enveloped in darkness. It’s unnerving, but I keep moving. The descent feels neverending. Finally, I begin to see light below me. At the end of the ladder, I find myself at one end of a small hallway. The first thing I notice is the warmth. It’s warm here. There is heat. I peel off my outdoor clothes, which are, by now, nearly soaked through, and leave them in a pile by the ladder.
The well lit hallway is not very long. I follow it around a corner, where it exits into a large, bright room. The room is full of machines with blinking lights, beeping incessantly. There is an older man moving frantically about the room, fidgeting first with one machine, then another, then another, and so forth, clucking unhappily to himself. Lines are etched deeply into his face. His spray of unruly white hair makes him look like a mad scientist.
What the hell?
He is so preoccupied with his machines, he doesn’t see me. I watch him, mouth agape. I have no idea what’s happening here.
“Warning! Perimeter breach! Warning! Intruder alert!” A machine near the man responds to my presence.
“Shut up, you,” the man says, in a thick Scottish accent, banging on the machine in an attempt to silence the alarm. “I told you before, there’s no —”
He looks up then, noticing me for the first time. His eyes grow wide. Jumping to his feet, he crosses the room and addresses me angrily.
“Who are you? How did you get down here? You can’t be here!”
“Who am I?” I respond. “Who are you? What the hell is this place?”
“You first! How did you find me?” he asks accusingly.
“There is a sizable hatch in the middle of this tiny island. It wasn’t rocket science.”
“Oh, damn. The cloaking device must be on the blink, too.”
“The —? Cloaking —?”
He dismisses my confusion with a wave of his hand.
“Cloaking device. Yes.”
“Which is why I’ve never seen the hatch before today.”
“Who are you? What the hell is this place?”
I repeat my original questions, and he considers me for a moment. Then he takes a deep breath, calming visibly.
“Okay. It won’t matter soon enough anyway. My name is Michael. And this is The Reconstitution.” He returns to his work.
“Reconstitution? What the hell does that even mean?”
“To reconstitute something is to return it to it’s origina—”
“No! I know what reconstitute means. What the hell is The Reconstitution?”
“Ah, yes. The Reconstitution is an automated global population management system. We’ve been around for ages, constantly evolving with available technologies. We’ve even invented a few ourselves. Our current system is really top notch. You should have seen some of our earlier implementations. They were just crude.”
“Automated global population management system? In precisely what way do you manage the population?”
“We protect the population from destroying itself.”
“You — protect —?”
“Indeed, yes. We monitor the planet’s population for signs of impending self-destruction. You don’t seem to mean to destroy each other, or the planet, generally, but that’s the way it always trends. World leaders observed this early on, and The Reconstitution was developed cooperatively among them. As I said, our early methods were — well, not what our current methods are, but we’ve always gotten the job done.”
“I’m sorry, I still don’t understand. What job is that?”
“Ah, I apologize if I’ve not been clear. We monitor the population for signs of self-destruction — we have a specific, refined criteria — and when we observe all the signs, we reset you.”
“You — reset —?”
“Indeed, yes. We reset you back to a point where you may choose a different trajectory. Don’t worry, you don’t even know. We reset you, and the world continues on. No harm done.”
“No harm —? What do you call what’s happening out there? People are dead. My family. People are dead.”
“Ah, yes. Well, it would seem our program had a bit of a hiccup.”
“A—?” I am speechless. He continues on.
“Yes, you see, when the program is functioning properly, it gives a warning signal that reconstitution is about to commence. It is programmed to choose something culturally relevant and comforting to the population. You’ll remember hearing ‘White Christmas’? Yes. Well, normally there is the warning signal, and you all fall asleep. The program resets you, you wake up, and you’re happier, friendlier, and none the wiser. The world continues on. No harm done.”
“Yes,” he continues, “This time, the program glitched. It happens from time to time, but quite infrequently. You heard the warning signal, and you all fell asleep, but the reconstitution failed, and the program became stuck. I remain down here at all times, preserved in a sleep chamber, and the program is set to wake me if it cannot correct itself after a period of six months. So, here I am!” He sounds almost gleeful.
“It —? You —?” I can barely process the things Michael is telling me. Fingering the photo in my pocket, I think of my girls. Given everything unbelievable that has happened in recent days, what makes this any different? I let it all sink in.
“What about the snow?” I ask him finally.
“Indeed, yes. Nanobots are our currently accepted method of reconstitution. During the process, the nanobots materialize as required, and disappear again quite quickly. While our reconstitution bots are cold and white, they’re not generally present in the quantities required to resemble snow. However, because the program glitched during their distribution process, they simply kept accumulating. Ergo — snow.”
“But I’ve seen it! It is snow. I saw it melting above us maybe an hour ago now.”
“Not melting. Retreating. I’ve been working on repairing the program, using the island as a small scale testing site for development purposes.”
This guy is mad. Utterly and completely mad. Still, it was a more plausible theory than anything I — or anyone else — had been able to come up with in the six months since the snow came.
“Let’s just say everything you’ve told me is true. How can you do this? You can’t control people like this. It’s not up to you to decide the fate of people’s lives.”
“Actually, you’re correct. It’s not up to me. It’s up to the program, and the specific criteria we’ve developed and refined over centuries.”
“So, you’re saying it’s up to a machine. A machine controls the fate of every person on this planet.”
“No. No! Stop what you’re doing. I can’t let you do this.” I pull a flare gun out of my pocket and aim it at him. It’s the only thing I have that’s of any use in this situation.
Michael looks confused and alarmed.
“I’m not sure you understand. Once I fix this, and complete the reconstitution successfully, everything will be like it was before the glitch. Everyone will be restored. Your family will be restored. And they’ll have no memory of this.”
I falter. My family. My girls. I could have them back, and it would be like none of this ever happened. God, I want that so badly. I lower my gun, and think of my wife. She would hate this. She was so beautiful. She had such a good heart. This is wrong, and I know it, and she would know it. If it were her standing here, she wouldn’t even hesitate. No. I raise my gun again.
“No. This ends here. Step away from the machines.”
“I’m sorry,” Michael says. “That’s not going to happen.”
Before I can react, I see him push a button on a console, and the room begins to spin. I fall to my knees, then keel over. Everything goes black.
I feel my consciousness returning. Instinctively, I bring my hand to my head. It hurts so — Oh. No, it’s fine. I must have been dreaming.
I feel another hand on my head, and I open my eyes in alarm.
“Are you alright, love? You seem to have had a bit of a start,” Stella says, kissing my forehead.
“I — I’m fine.” As far as I can tell, anyway.
The bedroom door swings open suddenly, and the girls come bounding in and on to the bed.
“It’s Christmas! It’s Christmas!” they shout, jumping up and down on us.
Stella laughs happily.
“Merry Christmas, my love!” she says, kissing me softly.
What is wrong with me? I shake my head, trying to clear away the lingering feeling of unease left by the dream I can’t remember. It’s Christmas.
“Merry Christmas, my girls!” I exclaim, hugging them all. “Shall we go see what Santa’s left for us?” As we make our way down the stairs, I hear the opening strains of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” float in through our open windows.
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