Since the first of us stood up in the Great Rift Valley, humans were obsessed with how their world will end. Eschatology, the study of the end times, has been at the root of major religions, scientific initiatives, and lunatics shouting on street corners. Ragnarok and Rapture, Big Crunch and heat death, there was no shortage of ideas on every step of the continuum betwixt science and faith.

Would anyone have guessed that the end would come through the gradual unraveling of reality?

It started in the densest and most populated places. People started noticing areas in which time slowed, gravity behaved erratically, and light did not refract properly. They were regarded as mere curiosities until they began to grow. What had been a simple fuzzing of light at the center of the anomalies soon became utter blackness, only fading into focus and light at the edge of each anomaly.

In time, they grew to consume most of the urban areas, leaving only treacherous ruins and parts of skyscrapers hanging impossibly amid the abyss. Anyone entering–or falling into–one of the anomalies was never seen again; experiments with ropes and pulleys came to naught. New ones formed as well, with the only one piece of apparent rhyme or reason to their emergence: they seemed to appear where humans congregated most thickly. City life quickly became intensely dangerous: trading the safety of pastoralism for comfort could mean vanishing into a hole in the fabric of reality.

Perhaps the effect was inevitable, a natural function of the universe never before observed. In that case, assigning fault would be like blaming a man for a thunderstorm. But there was no shortage of theories as to why the perceivable universe seemed to be rotting from the inside out.

Animals were occasionally seen to emerge from the anomalies after entering, for one, suggesting that all or part of the phenomenon was limited to humans and their constructs. Some argue that the very act of human perception and cognition, especially when concentrated, has overwhelmed some sort of natural balance. Those of a philosophical/religious bent have seen in the decay the fulfillment of any number of prophecies.

All that’s certain is that the decay continues at an accelerated rate.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Xinyidali was the brainchild of Chinese resource developers at the beginning of the property boom that gripped the country in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Built in an inland area with good road and rail connections to major population centers, it was the site of several major heavy industry plants built astride major trunk lines during the crash industrialization program of the Great Leap Forward.

Like most industrial sites from that era, the old settlement–which had no official name, only a post office address–was rapidly being rustbelted out of existence in favor of much better-built facilities closer to the coast. Sensing an opportunity, developers from Shanghai entered into an agreement to purchase the land as the industrial plants wound down one by one and were dismantled. In exchange for the burden of tearing down the old structures and assuming liability, the investors got the land practically for free.

A grandiose plan emerged to develop the area into a mixed-use shopping area, theme park, and retirement village catering to Westerners and the wealthy. Renamed Xinyidali–roughly “New Italy” in Mandarin–the owners built a concrete half-scale replica of the Colosseum as a centerpiece and arts venue while surrounding it with blocks of flats with shops on the first floor in the Mediterranean style. Broad parks were laid out in between the blocks, radiating out like spokes, to be filled with light amusements and food stands.

The site was roughly 40% complete and some early tenants had already moved in when one of the industrial plants being demolished nearby suffered a major accident. A pesticide plant, it produced carbaryl for agriculture but had not been properly decommissioned before demolition started. Several large holding tanks that were assumed to be empty were instead full, and when breached released large quantities of phosgene and methylamine into the air and soil.

Phosgene had been used as a biological weapon in the First World War, while methylamine is a flammable toxin in its own right. The resulting explosions and leakage killed 27 people and forced a hasty abandonment of the site. Further testing confirmed dangerously high levels of chemical waste in the surrounding environment, even in places uncontaminated by the phosgene or methylamine. The investors, it seemed, had simply thrown a layer of topsoil over the industrial sites and hoped for the best–a hope buttressed by lavish bribes.

With the site contaminated, the investors bankrupt or in jail, and a government embarrassed by the negative attention the incident, the site was simply fenced off and abandoned. Xinyidali remains in a broken state even today, attracting a small trickle of photographers, urban explorers, and other thrill-seekers drawn by its stark decay despite the danger.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

since campus was 75% empty over the summer, Southern Michigan University ran a number of “camps” for younger grade school students, which allowed many staff to keep drawing their salaries over the summer while providing a much-needed influx of hard cash.

Football Camp was incredibly popular, despite the mediocre performance that the SMU Fighting Grizzlies had experienced on the gridiron since their high-water mark in 1969. It was, however, no predictor of eventual success on the field, for a number of reasons. The kids were generally 12-13, so their eventual adult height and weight were still up in the air regardless of how much they trained. The camp also skewed rich and white as lawyer dads smarting over lost field glory pushed their kids into it, and “rich and white” has rarely been a descriptor in the background of the true NFL greats.

Math and Science Camp was also popular, again in spite of the middling national rankings that the associated departments had. Surprisingly, it too was not a predictor of eventual success; it had been once, but the kids associated with it had a blisteringly high burnout rate. Many wound up boomeranging or slacking into minimum wage jobs once they escaped from their tiger moms for the first time. Also 12-13, the kids were working on linear equations and testing hypotheses when their peers were running free and wild–a fact not lost on many of them. They tended to be quite diverse in ways that did very little for the camps’ image as bastions of privilege, with the Indian subcontinent and The Two Chinas being highly represented.

One would think that, due to the strong jock/nerd archetypes associated with them, that the campers would be intense rivals. In fact, they barely met. Football Campers used the Athletics facilities to eat, train, and sleep, and–as faculty often complained–those facilities were a world apart, inaccessible to the campus at large and generally of a much higher quality. Math and Science campers slept in disused dorms, ate in the cafeteria, and worked out of Kirtland Hall. They were, indeed, unaware of each others’ existence.

That is, until the day an errant squirrel exploded the generator on the west side of SMU’s campus thrust them into the same sphere.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

People thought that nighttime south of the Antarctic Circle during the solstice was months of utter inky darkness, but that wasn’t so, at least not that far from the actual Pole. Instead, there was a long polar twilight, sunrise that never rose, sunset that was already set, and an eerie blue glow.

Matilda saw the lack of sun–even if there was often light–drive her fellow researchers to distraction. They lost sleep, suffered through disrupted circadian rhythms, and were irritable. Many turned to sleep masks and UV tables to keep a semblance of equilibrium.

Not Matilda.

She’d always been a night owl, preferring to work until exhaustion took her and waking up when she woke up. The polar twilight was actually an upside for her–research was getting done with fewer distractions. In fact, if she timed things right, her fractured schedule meant going days at a time without seeing anyone outside the canteen. It had been fine for everyone concerned, as Matilda’s colleagues were about as fond of her as she was of them.

Until her results began getting out of hand, that is.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

Dr. Noah Sexton won a number of prominent physics prizes for his work on astrophysical X-ray sources. A PhD at 18, with his earliest major paper published at 20 and his first major award at 23, he was for a time regarded as an up-and-coming enfant terrible in the discipline, headed for a major academic or research position.

This changed, and rather forcefully, with his paper on “Nchimsi Background Radiation” penned at 27. Dr. Sexton argued that a certain type of background radiation, undetectable by all but the most sensitive instruments, contained a record of future events. The first such article, which was published but later withdrawn by the Canadian Journal of High Energy Particle Physics, proposed that the effect was on a quantum scale and only detectable under strict laboratory conditions.

His work went unchallenged for a year until a research team from Cambridge attempted to reproduce Sexton’s results. They found no evidence of the effects he described, serious problems with his procedure, and inexplicable errors in his mathematics (which was complex enough that the CJHEP had not bothered to check it). Sexton’s assertion that the name “nchimsi” that he applied to the background radiation came from a Sumerian goddess of future events also proved unfounded, with no such figure appearing in any authentic text from Sumer.

Sexton’s response was to compose a lengthy, rambling letter to the CJHEP defending his findings and accusing the Cambridge team of “petty jealousy.” He attempted to publish a follow-up paper, reporting data from experiments in his garage with a homemade apparatus and extending the timeframe of the “Nchimsi Background Radiation” to a scale detectable by humans. Every journal he submitted the new article to rejected it outright; Dr. Sexton eventually had it published by a vanity press at considerable expense.

His colleagues began to suspect that Sexton had undergone some kind of psychotic break, but he angrily refused to seek treatment and withdrew to his parents’ old home. Sexton continued to produce papers explaining how his discovery could predict the future, unlock the secrets of the universe, gift humanity with immortality, and more. He had them printed and mailed to libraries and academics, a practice that steadily drained his funds.

Sexton’s emaciated body was discovered by a neighbor not long after his 50th birthday; he had apparently starved to death after running out of food and money and refusing to leave his home in search of either. In what the coroner remarked as a fascinating coincidence, Sexton was found near his “Nchimi detector” with a scrawled note in his hand, which happened to be the same as a banner headline from the next morning, announcing his death.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

It may not have been as informative as other tours, and certainly didn’t contain the standard boilerplate about “where your success begins” and other consultant-generated slogans. It was mostly the kind of salacious gossip that only 100 plus years of academia could generate.

It also kept people asking for Kay’s tours by name.

“This is the university library. It’s the place where, in the fourth floor men’s restroom, Dr. Hulmann was discovered in a compromising position with a grad student. It got them both fired and divorced, and now they run an organic food store in town.”

“That’s the graduate college. There are study carrels there and every semester or two a student tries to move in. The last one caused a fire by plugging sixteen appliances in the one outlet provided.”

“The plans called for Bickerman Tower to be twice as large as it is, but they shrank it to match the budget. That’s why the restrooms only fit one person and the offices would be condemned for human habitation if the building inspector wasn’t an alumni.”

In addition to his qualifications as an engineer and a theorist, Ryov Nechayev was also an amateur historian. As such, he especially delighted in old, obsolete, or obscure units of measurement and often used them in his research. Graduate students and international collaborators quickly began passing around informal sheets of “rnmetric units” that were essential in any dealings with Dr. Nechayev:

Horse: 2.4 meters (for measuring distances to be covered)
Bus: 8.4 meters (for measuring things that were large enough to display advertising)
Smoot: 1.7 meters (for measuring things in Boston)
Barn: 10^−28 square meters (for sub-atomic use)
Grave: 1 kilogram (for important measurements)
Dog year: 52 days (for medium scale timeframes)
Tael: 31.25 grams (for meauring thing precious or Chinese)

The recording was very low quality, with frequent stutterstops and digital artifacts, but the woman speaking was very clearly Dr. Sinneslöschen.

“Language is not only representation, but also creation,” she said, her voice sounding metallic and watery due to the low audio quality. “If you compare the lexicons of various languages, you will find that some words are more effective than others in communicating concepts or bringing about action. These tend to be either descended from ancestral word forms, like Proto-Indo-European, or spontaneous–and mysterious–words that arise almost like genetic mutations.”

Dr. Sinneslöschen wiped her brow before continuing. “It sounds crazy, but my research has led me to believe that–if properly constructed out of ancestral and mutant morphemes–it would be possible to create ur-words. Not nouns, verbs, or adjectives, but Nouns, Verbs, and Adjectives. To merely speak a Noun would bring that which it describes into being. A Verb would unerringly bring about the action it describes. An Adjective would cause the quality so described to immediately and permanently be applied to the subject.”

“It’s been the realm of fantasy authors and visionary madmen, and now I believe it is within my grasp.” She reached up and apparently muted the audio. Placing a small orange upon a nearby table, Sinneslöschen spoke at it, her lips moving but no discernable word on her lips.

The fruit splattered into pulp second later, and the video ended.

“Then there is the art of inflated description,” Tarris said. “As long as something looks impressive enough to fit on the bill, people won’t check up on it.”

“I…see,” Trish replied.

“Example: what would you call this?” Tarris held up a stapler.


“Wrong, wrong, wrong!” Tarris cried. “It’s a prototype spatial mass driver. Mass driver because the staples, as physical objects, have mass and are driven. Spatial because the spatial properties of the paper sheets are altered in that they become attached. Prototype in that it possesses features no other stapler can boast–in this case, and American flag sticker and glitter.”

Trish picked up an old itemized invoice from the desk. “So what’s a Multi-Function Interoperable Heavy Secret Defender?”

“Soundproof office door,” Tarris said. “Helps with impromptu jam sessions.”

“Laboratory Configurable Stellar Atmospheric Light Secret Dropship?”

“Model airplane. Really flew!”

“Short-range Sub-space Civilian Transport?”

“Volkswagen Jetta. It actually has a pretty decent range.”

Of course, there was the matter of the substance’s alchemical properties, as well. Johnathan had been experimenting with its rational, scientific aspects, but was quite thrilled to take it “off the books” to see what its interaction with the fantastical might be. He wasn’t so naive as to expect it to the lead-to-gold bullet ameteurs had so long sought, but he had enough of the Knack to see that the ore was particularly drawn to the ley line which ran through the laboratory.

His thoughts were interrupted on seeing a light on in the lab.

No, not a light–a flashlight, swinging to and fro, accompanied by scrapings, crashes, and other generally unhealthy sounds.

Creeping up as silently as he could, Johnathan eased the door open and flicked on the overhead light, illuminating a scene of utter ruin with a slim intruder at its heart.

“May I ask what you’re doing redecorating my laboratory at the witching hour?” he asked. Behind his back, one hand began to silently go through the motions of a holding charm.

“Ah…janitor in training?”

“Nice try.”