Seeing Athens vanishing into the mist gave her an odd flashback to her youth, to the streets of Exarcheia when the government had decided to drown the city in tear gas. Then too, there had been people screaming, clutching at their eyes, coughing blood. But even when the riot police had advanced on them, they'd felt at home. This was their city, the people's city.
But now, with this mist creeping in from the sea, with people changing, with strange creatures lurking in the shadows, the city no longer felt like home. The streets and buildings that had once signified a living society had turned into an alien landscape. The cafes, the bookstores, the cinemas... everything she had treasured about the city, everything she'd once hoped to rebuild, was slowly being taken away.
Athena gestured for the others to follow and headed towards the main square. The mist crept down the street behind them, despite the gentle wind blowing in the opposite direction. Someone shouted that they saw something moving in there. Maybe a person. Maybe not.
Around the next corner, they encountered a group of soldiers. The soldiers shouted at her people, commanding them to head for a designated safe zone; citizens were not allowed on the streets. One of them even pointed a gun at her, his young eyes crazed with desperation. She looked at him calmly, although she knew how easily this situation could go wrong.
"You don't have to do this," she said, making sure the other soldiers couldn't hear what she was saying. If he thought he was losing face, he might do something stupid.
"You know your orders don't make any sense," she continued. "And they don't. The safe zones aren't safe."
"You're lying," he growled.
"Then tell me, how many politicians have you seen in the safe zones?"
For a brief moment, she saw the doubt in his eyes. Then it was gone. Pride or fear or a combination of both pushed it out of the young man's consciousness.
"Get off the street!" he screamed at her. "Head to the designated safe zone now or there will be trouble!"
"OK, we're going, officer," she said.
"Are these people citizens? Only citizens are allowed in the safe zones! Foreigners must leave the city at once!"
"Of course they are, child," she said in her most maternal voice. She'd never been a mother, but decades of work as a hairdresser had given her the ability to perfectly mimic the kind of conservative housewives this sort of young man instantly obeyed.
The mist crept closer. The soldiers aimed their guns at it, as if that helped. Athena took one last look at the young soldier as they left him behind. She hoped he'd run, but he probably wouldn't. He'd follow orders and die a hero. Except he wouldn't die, would he? He'd walk off into the mist. And then? Whatever happened, she doubted he'd have much humanity left by the time it was over.
The street they turned into evoked a sudden rush of memories. Here, decades ago, long before the mist and the war and all the horrors that followed, in a tiny cafe usually favoured by students, Athena had first met with a group of hairdressers to discuss organizing. The gulf between that Athena and the one leading people down the streets of a dying city seemed impossibly wide, but at the same time, she still felt like she was the same person. She wondered how many of the people following her knew they had pinned their hopes on a militant hairdresser. The thought made her chuckle.
Somewhere behind them there was gunfire. Ahead, the road was blocked by a seemingly-abandoned tank.
"This way!" she shouted, pointing at a side street.
An old Syrian man stumbled and fell. He howled with pain as his knee hit the ground, and couldn't get up. Two young women rushed to help him. Another man pointed at the mist, which was slowly creeping up behind them, swallowing the empty building where the tiny cafe had once been.
"We have to leave him behind," he said. "He'll hold us up!"
Athena said nothing, but the look she gave him was enough. He backed off.
Another man came forward. He looked like he might have been a bodybuilder once; his thick, muscular arms were covered in tattoos. For a second, Athena worried that he might cause trouble. Instead, he nodded and picked up the old man.
"I'll carry him," he said. "We don't leave people behind."
Running from the security forces, he ran face-first into a lamppost. He was so surprised by the very idea that such a thing could actually happen in real life that he almost burst out laughing. And he would have, were it not for the pain and the likelihood of being caught and executed on the spot. Still, it was pretty funny.
He got up and looked around. The mist was coming from the south and west; his pursuers were coming from the north. That left the east, towards the Acropolis. At least he'd die with a nice view.
"There he is!" someone shouted behind him. Crap.
Bullets started flying. These guys sure meant business. Well, he'd known that when he'd volunteered for this mission. Still. Opening fire like that? Man. They were pissed.
He ducked behind a car and crawled into an abandoned apartment building.
"He's trapped! We've got him!"
It was a good thing these people weren't locals, or they'd have known that the back of the building was missing, destroyed by a WWIII bomb that killed more than a hundred people. Mitsos got up and ran out on the other side, grinning. His grin turned into a gasp when he almost ran straight into the mist. The road he'd intended to take was gone.
What the hell? How could the mist already be there? It was moving way too fast.
Fortunately there was still an alternative route. He hopped onto an abandoned purple bicycle. Ah, yes. Speed, but without noise that might attract attention! This was an excellent vehicle for escaping all the many people and creatures that were bent on killing him today.
He cycled past a group of soldiers. They yelled at him, but he just waved and kept cycling. That confused them. Good.
Ten minutes later, the wheels fell off.
Mitsos cursed the self-deconstructing bicycle, gave it a kick, and went back to running. At least the security guys were no longer a threat. Now all he needed to do was survive the apocalypse long enough to get what he'd stolen to the right people. Piece of cake.
Behind him, something moved in the mist. Something big. Way too big. Crap.
Then a house exploded. Double crap.
Shrapnel came flying his way and he had to lunge for cover. Something hit him anyway, cutting off his right earlobe. Crap times infinity.
He ducked into an old gyros shop, not even thinking about what he was doing. Only after a few minutes of hiding as a tank rolled past, firing idiotically at the creatures in the mist, did he realize where he was. This was the very shop where he'd spent countless hours with his friend Kostas, debating the great political issues of the day. Should the system be overthrown, or something new built inside of it? Was the solution to capitalism's increasing instability reform or class war? Were the Thessalonians or the Athenians correct in their definition of a souvlaki?
He heard muffled screams in the distance. The tank stopped firing and the mist started creeping past the gyros shop. Even if he ran out now, he wouldn't be able to make it. Tendrils of mist started reaching into the shop, almost like it was looking for people.
He was trapped, then. This was it. The end of Mitsos. To have survived the bombings, the protests, the crackdowns - half the population of the city vanishing in the first mist, and then freaking World War III on top of that - only to get eaten in a gyros shop by an overambitious weather phenomenon!
No, hold on. There was a back door. He and Kostas had fled through there once when the police had raided the place looking for draft dodgers, back in the early days of the war. Yes! Mitsos lives!
The door was locked, so he threw himself against it. It broke easily, and he landed in a big pile of garbage in the back street. The mist hadn't reached this place, though, so he was nevertheless grateful. He got up and started running again, his ear bleeding profusely.
Ten minutes later, the mist still on his heels, he ran past one of the designated safe zones, which was a fancy word for a somewhat-upgraded metro station. People were packed in there like sardines, and the defenses were weak at best. He'd seen the plans - after all, he was the one who'd leaked the documents. These shelters were a joke, and a tragically dangerous one at that.
He was sorely tempted to try and stop people from going in. He saw a family of four head down the steps and almost called out. But they must have heard the reports. They must have seen the leaflets. If they trusted the government, or felt they had no choice,they wouldn't listen to a blood-drenched madman telling them it wasn't safe, that instead of doing what the experts told them to, they should come join his techno-utopia in the mountains. No, he had to go.
This time he slipped on a banana peel. He made a sound like a startled dog as he fell. Then he found himself staring at the sky and cursing the universe.
"Really, God? A banana peel? What's next, the Benny Hill theme tune?"
Wait a minute, though. A banana peel. What was a banana peel doing on the streets of Athens? International commerce was in shambles - you couldn't even get a banana from Crete. He got up and examined the yellowish object he'd slipped on.
It did look like a fruit, but not any kind of fruit he'd seen before. It was weirdly slimy, and the goo inside it looked almost phosphorescent. He looked around to see if there were more, and was shocked to see it had actually grown on a tree. He wasn't good with tree names, but he was pretty sure this used to be a normal tree. Was the vegetation changing? He'd heard rumours, but... no way. Crap, crap, crap.
There was an alarm, and the doors of the shelter closed. The people inside were now trapped, at the mercy of shoddy design and decisions made by the panicked servants of plutocrats. He wished them good luck, and kept running. From somewhere over the city, he heard the sound of helicopters.
There were too many people. They'd waited too long.
He didn't blame Zhara, although maybe Nikolai had been right. They should have been more forceful. The government had been weaker than it had appeared, and their constant harassment should've been understood as a sign of fear. Even after all these disasters, they wanted to cling to existing power relations, maintain the hierarchies that allowed them to profit from exploitation. They probably thought that one day everything would go back to the way it used to be, before the mist. Abdul had no such delusions.
He tried to count the people trapped on Mount Lycabettus, but they were too many, their movement too chaotic. Half the planet was represented here: he heard Greek, Arabic, French, English, Turkish, Russian, even Chinese. Looking at the mass of people before him, he realized in a visceral, gut-wrenching sense something he'd intellectually understood for a long time: the only thing that mattered was their common humanity. They were all refugees now.
The mist was getting closer. Pireaus was already gone, as was most of south-western Athens. Here on the mountain they were safe for a little while, but not for much longer. And there were just too many people. They weren't ready for this.
"Have we set up those mist-repelling thingies?" he asked Kostas.
"No, haven't managed. Too busy trying to get everyone up here. Plus, we don't know if they even work."
"What did Stas say?"
"Years of testing."
"Splendid. Set them up anyway. I'll see if I can get through to Zhara."
Before he could press through the mass of people to get to the communications equipment, there was an explosion in the city and a building collapsed. Several people screamed.
"Please stay calm!" he shouted. "We'll be OK up here, as long as this doesn't turn into a stampede."
He wished Athena was here; she was better at this. Still, it seemed to work, more or less.
"They have tanks firing at the mist," Jenny said. She was observing the city with binoculars.
"Mostly to give the impression they're doing something, I think."
Another building collapsed on the other end of town.
"Crazy bastards," Abdul muttered under his breath. "Imagine how much money they spent trying to shut down our domes in every damn way possible. And now the best thing they can do is shoot the mist. Which they also did the first time around, and it didn't do anything then, either."
"I know, it's the textbook definition of insanity. They - wait a second. Look!"
She handed him the binoculars.
"It's Athena! They're coming!"
He was relieved that Athena and the last group of refugees were OK, but it didn't change the facts. There were too many people. They'd waited too long.
She'd waited and waited and waited, but the call had never come. Nothing. Just silence. The sleeper agent would stay asleep forever.
Something had gone wrong, she was certain of it. Maybe the Phoenix Project was dead. Or maybe there had just been a simple error and she was the only one never to be activated. It was easy for things like that to go wrong, especially when the world was ending. Unfortunately this left her without a plan, and plans were a good thing to have - especially when, as noted above, the world was ending.
She took another look at the message she'd received. Crazy as it seemed, it was authentic. She'd actually gotten an email from Tobias West.
I am recruiting the brightest and the best to join me in New Jericho. You know that my standards are high, so you know that I wouldn't even approach you if I didn't think you were a special individual. I've carefully reviewed your contributions to the exoskeleton project, and it's obvious to me that you should have been team leader; in New Jericho, you would be. We don't care about gender or race or sexuality - what we are building is a true meritocracy, where only the best will lead. You could be part of that, or you could continue rotting away working for a corrupt government. We can extract you before things get worse. Our capabilities are greater than you imagine.
Tobias West. CEO of Vanadium. Tech genius. Arms dealer. Owner of a private military. Visionary. Criminal. She was tempted to say yes just to meet the man and see what she made of him. His ideology was repulsive to her, but there was something noble about his commitment to his principles, his desire to build a new society, even though she suspected he'd end up naming every street in New Jericho after himself.
"Sophia, get your bag, we have to go outside, the helicopters are almost here," her boss said.
Ministers, generals, various assistants and apparatchiks, plus a number of particularly well-connected lobbyists were assembling on Syntagma Square. The square had been fortified to ensure the safety of what would soon be a government in exile, ruling a country vanished in the mist. A government of nobodies ruling over nobody.
Why was she still here, then? She kept asking herself that. Most of the time, she thought the answer was that she was waiting to hear from the Phoenix Project, to get a chance to play her part in saving humanity. Sometimes, when she was depressed, she thought it was all due to selfishness.
Somewhere in the city there was an explosion, and one of the apparatchiks let out a scream.
"We have to get out of here ASAP!" he shrieked.
Get out of here. Not get to a shelter. No, that wouldn't be safe, and they knew it. They'd sent countless people to their deaths just to save face. And she was the one who'd signed off on it. It wasn't her plan, but as scientific advisor, she could have done something to block it. She should have. But what would have been the point? They'd have fired her and gotten someone else to sign the same document.
She doubted Saint Peter would care much about this excuse. Her faith was a bit wobbly these days, but she was pretty sure "someone else would have done it" wasn't much better than "I was just following orders" when it came to the future of one's eternal soul.
We should all stay right here, she thought. All of us who did this, who played along, who just nodded and said OK and signed our names. Stay here and face the consequences.
The sound of helicopters filled the air. A whole fleet of them, huge and ugly, like big black flies. There was a lot to transport - not just people, but equipment and supplies. All the stuff that had been stored in the city to maintain the illusion that the government was confident that the mist could be dealt with.
The first of the helicopters landed. People started running around, shouting orders. The evacuation had been meticulously planned months ago.
Suddenly there was another explosion, but this one wasn't in the distance. One of the barricades protecting Syntagma Square collapsed. Everyone turned, bodies tense with the onrush of extreme fear. Had the mist reached them sooner than anticipated? Had the explosion been caused by the monsters rumoured to live in the mist?
From the expressions she saw around her when a group of heavily-armed citizens rushed onto the square, she guessed that many of her colleagues would have preferred monsters.
"This evacuation zone is off limits! You are ordered to turn back immediately!" the Minister for National Defence shouted. The leader of the group, a terrifying-looking bearded man with one artificial eye and a nasty scar where the other eye used to be, raised his shotgun and blew the minister into the dried-up water fountain in the middle of the square. Sophia jumped back into the building as the guards opened fire on the intruders. She hid, trembling, listening to the chaos outside and wishing she could do something. Human beings shouldn't be fighting one another, not now.
The firefight didn't last long. The intruders, whoever they were, made short work of the guards. They also gunned down more than a few assistants and apparatchiks who got in the way. The square was soon littered with corpses.
"We are not here to kill you," the one-eyed man said. His accent was Russian. "But we will need your helicopters."
She blamed herself for waiting too long, for not wanting to engage the government. The decision had been made democratically, of course - this was one of their founding principles - but she'd argued passionately for a peaceful approach, and her arguments had swayed the others. They had the right tools and the right ideas; why not just focus on building the future, instead of clinging to old notions of overthrowing the state? She'd quoted Bookchin and Nikolai had quoted Lenin, but this time Nikolai's forceful rhetoric had not seemed appealing to anyone. The domes had been going well, the new tech had seemed highly promising. Why look for trouble? Why employ violence when you could just solve the problem with creativity?
She'd underestimated the stupidity and recklessness of the government. Hierarchies were stubborn things, and the people who profited from them would go to extreme lengths to preserve their advantages. She saw now what Nikolai had been trying to say: not that they should attack the state, but that the state would inevitably try to eliminate the competition. First through quasi-legal means, then through sabotage, then through outright violence.
Fortunately, the domes had been constructed to survive far worse than a handful of missiles. But until today, until all hell broke loose, the state had stuck to sabotage and propaganda, and Zhara had to admit that she'd failed to anticipate just how well the whole "we're staying in the city, so obviously it's all safe" ploy would work. After the trauma of the last few years, people were just exhausted. While many wanted to try a new socio-political system, many also just wanted to be left in peace. She understood the feeling all too well. After the fall of Rojava, she'd just wanted to go live in the mountains and never engage with politics again. Let Tobias West save the world. Let the Disciples of Anu build their theocracy; maybe it would even work.
But here she was, so she better get on with it.
"Stas, how are we coming along on those new rebreather units? If everything goes well, we're going to be getting a whole lot more CO2 to absorb. Plus, the air smells like farts in here."
"Umm, that's the peanuts."
"You made flatulence-flavoured peanuts? Great."
"It's only a problem with this generation. The next one will be fine. And they're a lot hardier than the ordinary kind, with much higher yields. Plus they actually taste better."
"Once you get past the eau de fart."
"That's just the leaves. It's a long story."
Zhara looked around the farm, tried to imagine it as part of a new city, a new society - a haven from the horrors of war and ecological catastrophe. An entire generation of children might grow up under this dome, playing on these fields. She found that she could almost imagine it.
Close enough. Faith would take her the rest of the way.
"You really think we should be planting this many peanuts?"
"Oh yes. Remember all those labels on foods in supermarkets?"
"May contain traces of peanuts?"
"Exactly. Everything contains peanuts. Not just foods. Probably also, you know, dogs and bridges and industrial drilling machines. Peanuts make the world go round. We'll need lots of peanuts."
"Stas, you're starting to sound like Nikolai."
"Well, since he's become a lot less funny these days..."
Zhara sighed. She could see how much Stas loved his husband, how much it bothered him to see him so unable to be the relaxed, funny man he'd once been. Zhara wondered how much she herself had changed since Rojava. Had she become harder? Or maybe it was the opposite. Maybe she was getting sentimental.
"In any case..." she mumbled.
"The tech will hold up if we do," Stas said.
In another lifetime, he'd been a teacher in an impoverished community in northern England, struggling to give his pupils a better life. Now he was the man who'd put two bullets into an enemy soldier's head without even blinking. Yet he'd sleep like a baby tonight, and that worried him. He'd joined Synedrion because he believed in peace, and Synedrion always tried to avoid violence. But these people, who had knowingly herded the citizens they were supposed to represent into unsafe shelters... he found it very difficult to care about them. And after they'd actually tried to blow up the domes, he was convinced they weren't just ideological opponents, but an actual threat to the survival of the human species.
"You can't just take the helicopters," the apparatchik was telling Nikolai. "They have a brand new security system. Authorized personnel only, and you're not authorized. You have no chance of hacking it before the mist gets here, either."
"You people waste money on the dumbest shit," Nikolai laughed. It was not a happy laugh.
"You can call it dumb all you like, but if you don't cooperate, you're not getting out of here either. Now, if you do, we can guarantee-"
Nikolai shot him in the face.
"Anyone else want to negotiate?"
Nobody said a word.
The mist was getting closer. The tanks had stopped shelling random bits of the city, and now it was eerily quiet. Not much longer and it would all be gone. Kevin shuddered at the thought.
Suddenly there was a loud scream, and a man tumbled over one of the barricades. Kevin was so startled that he almost shot him. As the man dusted himself off and staggered towards them, Kevin recognized him. It was Mitsos, their all-purpose scout/hacker/thief combo. Once again he had proven to be strangely competent, in his own mysterious way, although he did seem to be missing part of one ear.
"I have the overrides," Mitsos said. "And also, I quit. I'm going to be a farmer. Grow genetically modified turnips and never leave the dome again."
"My friend, once this is over, you can do whatever you want," Nikolai told him.
"Turnips, I'm telling you."
Their techs started inputting the overrides. About ten minutes later they had full control of the fancy new helicopters, although Kevin was pretty certain that as soon as these things ran out of fuel, they'd be useless. They'd need new vehicles, eventually, ones that ran on something more renewable. But for the moment, this was salvation.
"OK, listen up," Nikolai called out. "We have people to save. Everyone get on board. Except you."
He pointed at the surviving ministers.
"What? Why don't we get to go?" one of them said, outraged but pitiful. Kevin thought it might be the Minister for Foreign Affairs, but he could never remember politicians' faces.
"The others were all underlings. Their ethical quandaries are their own to resolve. But you held political office. You had power. And you chose to do this. To abandon the people. So now the people will abandon you."
"And what are we supposed to do now? How are we supposed to survive?"
"I don't know. Why don't you try a designated safe zone?"
One of the flunkies, a science advisor, decided to stay behind. He watched her with his one eye, standing all alone on Syntagma Square, and wondered whether he should have tried to convince her to come. Had she stayed behind out of principled opposition? Fear? Shame?
The square drifted away, and he stopped thinking about her. There was too much else going on. They had to figure out the exact logistics of how to get everyone to safety, for one thing. And then they had to find out how to survive in the new world that was coming. He strongly suspected that the mist was only the beginning of something much, much worse. But it was important to remember that the mist wasn't magic; it was a material phenomenon, and could be understood.
It pained him to think how close they'd come, back in the day. If everything hadn't gone to crap, if he hadn't spent years recovering from his wounds, they might have been able to stop the mist before it spread.
So close. So damn close.
Even as he saw yet another city being claimed by the mist, however, he was still optimistic. Somebody would figure it out. Synedrion would, or if they failed, then maybe the poor fools currently headed to New Jericho to play out some Heinleinian fantasy. Hell, even those lunatic Disciples might. Or maybe, just maybe, some part of the Phoenix Project was still active somewhere, looking for solutions.
The one thing he knew was that he believed in humanity. Somewhere in all its maddening diversity and insane inventiveness, an answer would be found that would allow civilization to survive. And not just civilization, but liberty: eventually, most human beings started looking for systems that allowed them to be free. The arc of the moral universe was long, to paraphrase an old dreamer, but he thought it bent towards freedom.
That thought would keep him going. When they lost people, when the assemblies couldn't agree on anything, when the world they had grown up in turned into something hostile and alien, he would always return to the notion that the desire for freedom was too deeply rooted in humanity for it ever to be truly destroyed.
Athens finally vanished in the mist. But the idea that had been born here, of democracy, of rule by the people - that idea transcended nations and peoples and cultures, and that idea would live on forever.