"Tell me everything." Not a question.
"You have no idea what you're asking." Not an answer.
"Maybe I don't. Maybe you could enlighten me. I know what everyone knows, of course - the bullshit they teach in high-school. But I want to know more. And you can tell me."
"Maybe I will. But why should I?" He is being stubborn over this; he has been silent for so long he feels trying to speak about it will kill him.
"Well, I can't pay you, if that is what you mean. And if you really don't want to talk, I won't make you. But think: you're one of so very few who survived. Possibly the only one who survived so close to the 'epicenter' of a 'quake. If you die, you'll take what could be crucial knowledge with you." He paused - quite the persuader, this one - and lent in towards Dominik. "What if it happens again? What if your silence is what dooms millions more? Would you wish you'd spoken?" Guilt tactics; Dominik knows this. But he senses that this one means it - and he knows that he should tell his story.
Dominik breathes deeply once; twice, three times - then begins.
"It started, as you probably know, back in '37. Yeah, that's earlier than they say in school. The first one happened in late November, 2037. I'd had a so-so day, and came home to find all the holo-channels - yes, things were 3D back then too, it ain't that recent - were blaring with the news."
A newsreader - a human, not a friendly neighbourhood android - is speaking, apparently inside Dominik's front room. A clever illusion, nothing more. "Yes, to repeat - some sort of weapon of mass destruction, or virus, or something - we don't know what - has struck in China-"
("yes, not 'the republic of' back then. Guess what made it a republic?" A few words from the interviewer/researcher/whatever. Dominik continues. letting the person know he was correct before he does.
"Thousands of people just died...seemingly at random, across the country... We don't know what's happened, no idea... many terrorist organisations are claiming responsibility, but experts in various weaponry fields say no currently available weapons technology could do that kind of thing...."
Dominik had sat down by now. He gaped at shaky images, done on amateur cameras - they still haven't stopped the shaking, he thought, all that technology and amateur footage still shakes - of people in the street just falling and dying, no time to scream or writhe - just dying. It cuts back to more professional shots, no action - just dead bodies in the streets of China. No one else. They've run, he thought, they've fled the unknown killers. They don't know what or why or how, but they know to run.
Back to the news studio. The newsreader was talking again - "...and the latest reports of death count is into the low millions. We've flown in this expert in trivialities to calm you chickens down until we know what's really going on..."
The newsreader hadn't said that last part, of course, but that was what Dominik heard. He was shocked, of course, but he didn't care. He didn't know the people, and he couldn't bring himself to empathise with them. He tried, but he just didn't care.
"Well," said Dominik, "you know what had happened better than I." Dominik paused slightly before continuing, and then went on - "At least; in some ways you do. Anyway, we'll skip ahead a little. It's early '38,"
It's early '38, and the lack of warm ocean currents means Britain is thoroughly frozen. Dominik has grown used to it, but he can't stop blaming earlier generations for his woes. News of the event in China has been heard by everyone, and analysed from every possible angle. Dominik still remembers the formal report, covered thoroughly on every media there was -
"The following information has been disclosed regarding the events in China a few months ago. Firstly, the deaths appear to have been spread out in a perfect sphere, with the center in the city of Beijing. The nearer to the center, the greater the proportion of people dead - apparently a 100% kill-rate at what has been called ground-zero..."
Dominik was barely listening. The overall death-count had been 57 million. A massive number, but barely a blip compared to what was yet to happen. And, of course, there had been the Madness, as it later came to be known...
"It started with the extremists, of course. People who'd believed even the maddest stuff from the start. They said this was a miracle, a sign that God was purging the earth...all that crap." The scientist (Dominik is pretty sure he is not a reporter, he doesn't know why. Maybe it is the after-effects of the 'quake, acting on his brain) nods along - the riots, the fighting, this at least they teach in high school. They skim over the witness accounts though. There is no personality to a history lesson about the 'quakes. They leave it out.
"Anyway," Dominik continues, "I don't need to tell you about all that. It stopped quickly enough of course - people find it hard to really hold on to faith when people are dying left, right and center, and God seems to spare no one. But we haven't quite got there yet. The first 'quake that got into text-books was in March 2038."
The second 'quake hit America. Despite the horror, Dominik distinctly remembers thinking
'Not so high-and-mighty now, are you?'
The pattern seemed the same as before. A sphere of influence, with the death-rate thinning out towards the edges. The only difference was the country, but that was enough - with 46 million more dead, killed instantly - people inside the sphere who survived were allowed to talk. And talk they did, long and loud. And the account was always the same.
Dominik breathes deeply again, then speaks again. "I'll give my story now, if I may. It wasn't the first 'quake, nowhere near. At least 3 billion people had simply blinked out by the time my story started. Their minds had just shut down. And the economy was overbalancing, too. The whole thing - the whole of what we called 'civilisation
' - was going to hell."
Dominik had been sitting down to a hot drink at the end of the day. Good tea was hard to get hold of; this was a rare treat. He was watching the bustle of London life - subdued so much by the knowledge that they could simply die, at any time, for no discernible reason. And so many were already dead. Dominik watched, sipped, watched, read the newspaper (DeadDeadDead, more people dead), sipped, repeated. Relaxed.
Then sudden movement to the right of him snapped his head around. Someone had just collapsed, without any outcry at all. One moment, a London pedestrian. The next, a body. And the moment after that, 3 more had fallen. Dominik could see the wave spreading out, killing more and more, crashing cars off the road into buildings as the drivers slumped across the wheel.
The shock-wave spread out oh-so-slowly, or so it seemed to Dominik. He could almost see the spreading sphere as it advanced. Only time for a quick prayer to a God he never believed in, and then-
-the 'quake's shock-wave rolled over him, leaving him with a staggering sense of what had happened, an account of every person killed by the 'quakes burned into his mind forever.
It was the other's turn to speak -
"Dominik, what you saw is incredible. You observed the epicenter of a 'quake, and lived to tell the tale. As far as I know, you are amongst only 2 or 3 people ever to survive that close. I think you have a right to know what we think happened...
"The weight of 10 billion minds, all so similar, had built up. Like two continental plates that had jammed tight, the pressure went on building...and building. Then it began to buckle, vast forces thrown out - more than any mind could take. The resulting wave of pure death, we called a mindquake. In only 13 months - 15 if what you said at the start is true - the population of the earth went from 10 billion to only 300 million. Then, of course, we started to recover.
"But, in a twisted way, we needed the 'quakes. And that's the worst bit of all. God help us, we needed those people to die"
For sci-fi quest. Special thanks to an event briefly described in Terry Pratchett's book Strata, an event whose tale needed telling.