Around him, the mansion stretched in all directions. The help scurried like ants, continuously resetting the abode for no one in particular.
“Ditillio,” the man spoke, eyes trained on the ashen slopes beyond his villa. “What is the date? Can you remind me?”
“It is the 19th of September, 2109,” Ditillio sighed, “As it was yesterday, sir.”
“And the date out there?” asked the man with bloodshot eyes. With a shaking finger he pointed beyond the wavering jade field doming the villa.
Ditillio’s brow creased. He straightened his collar and coughed.
“We’re… not sure, sir.”
The man nodded.
His nerves were shot, a cryonic side effect; veins seemed to shudder under the skin as he considered the scorched earth and fire-ridden skies outside the plasma field. His sight fell to the kinetic dome’s perimeter where the ash ended and pristine patio began.
“And my name?” he spluttered through mouthfuls of bacon and defrosted coffee.
“Mr Armand Riffolk, of course,” Ditillio said.
The short-term effects of the flash freeze chamber were wearing off, bringing a return to his appetite.
Riffolk was also reminded that the bay lay in ruin, bordering a polluted sea. This was a reminder previously left by Mr Riffolk himself, scratched into a notebook nestled in his manservant’s breast pocket; a reminder to soften the blow of the news.
Rubbing the greying stubble on his chin, Riffolk stared into his mug to digest the news.
“So, what happened?” he said, looking out over the crumbling remains of the coastal town.
“It would be remiss of me to try and explain concisely, sir,” said Ditillio. He had made such attempts in the past. “What do you remember of the war?”
“Not a great deal. Soviet sleeper agents were revealed in D.C, that I do remember.”
“That was some time before the missiles launched.”
The skies outside rarely changed. Sometimes clouds rolled in, but it mattered little.
The staff switched off the heating bulbs around the estate as a ritual to signify the evening, an act that Riffolk found incredibly unsettling.
Plucking an orange from the tree by the front gate, he tore at the flesh and tossed it into the plasma barrier. It rapidly disintegrated.
His fragmented memory returned in segments. He knew that the orange tasted great, that it used to be one of his favourite fruits. It was said to him that his mother planted this very tree on his fifteenth birthday, though her face was a void in his mind for the time being.
“Huh,” he looked wistfully at the two mansions sitting diagonally across from his own; neither were consumed by an energy field, standing as twisted mirrors of their former selves.
His gaze rose to meet a pair of eyes watching him from a top floor window across the way.
“Mr Riffolk, you had the maids petrified!” a voice suddenly came from behind. The stern features of Ditillio came into view. “You haven’t slept well again, have you, sir?”
“The bed is taking some getting used to.”
“Understandable. We can find you a new mattress, perhaps?”
“No, that’s not necessary. I just—”
The window across the street was shrouded in shadow. His sight must have been reacting to the cryonics, it made sense. His manservant noticed the lapse in response.
“Forget it,” Riffolk chewed on the last pieces of orange, and enjoyed the fresh night air from the filter struts. Hopefully it would help him sleep better.
“It’s the 19th of September, 2109, sir.”
That’s what they always said.
Riffolk counted six cycles of day and night, judged by the status of the heating bulbs.
His mind was calming, along with his nervous system. The image of the phantom face in the window of the neighbouring home still haunted him.
In the early morning of the seventh day, he crept down the staircase leading from his bedroom to the second floor. He slunk past a maid into the study, his memory thawed enough to reveal a tight staircase zigzagging to the left of the bookcase.
Under the scarlet sun, Riffolk eyed the barrier around his home and the gloomy structures on the other side.
The help rarely walked the grounds before seven a.m. He’d watched their patterns, every morning like clockwork; they moved along predetermined paths, turning on lights, checking the perimeter.
Riffolk breathed deep and watched the thunderstorm, from which he always found a strange form of relaxation. Aside from the weather, the outer world presented a kind of goosebump-inducing macabre beauty.
As he turned to head back inside, he clearly saw the gaunt face of Ditillio in the window of the master bedroom, staring down at him.
Sleep was near impossible now.
Even a sleeping tablet from the medicine cabinet failed to take effect, at odds with his employees’ sporadic movements in the twilight hours.
Staring at the ceiling, his right hand squeezed the bed sheet. His left clutched a poker that he had smuggled from the downstairs fireplace.
The landing floorboards creaked. Riffolk watched shadows move across the door, cursing himself for not having a lock put on there.
One of them would have made a spare key.
His limbs twitched, stomach gurgling; even eating in the presence of the staff made him nervous now. It wouldn’t be hard for them to slip something into his meals.
Riffolk didn’t even get the impression that they were in league with each other. Tempers flared frequently, their relationships fraying each day cycle. The cracks on their masks were becoming tougher to ignore.
“Here! Over here!”
He shot upright.
The voice rose again from outside. Peeling back the curtains, he saw six staff members spilling from the front door. Something had them riled up.
Riffolk saw them disappear down the lawn past the end of the walkway, gathering with a larger group. He could plainly see a familiar face in the crowd— one whom he could not mistaken for anyone.
And he was turning and heading out past the plasma field as the congregation stood by.
“Mr Ditillio gave strict instructions not to wake Mr Riffolk,” one said, pulling on a baggy foil suit. His colleague did the same as they stood by the stairs on the second floor. “And watch his door at all times.”
The maid nodded.
Riffolk ducked out of view as she ascended, her shoes clacking on the steps.
Scurrying back to his room he headed down the staircase in the alcove opposite his bed.
The second floor was unburdened with the bustle from downstairs.
The foil-clad staff were nowhere to be seen, until Riffolk inched out of the doorway by the staircase. Movement to his right, the brief crinkling sound of foil. He shirked backwards, grinding the handle of the poker in his perspiring palms.
The suit charged into the room opposite him and began rummaging in the cupboards.
His breath caught in his throat. Closing the distance in two strides, he brought the poker down across the waiting back.
Another whack, this time across the head.
Riffolk swiftly undressed him, pulling on the suit. A pang of guilt washed over him. He slid a folded towel under the guy’s bleeding head, propping him up.
The crowd were still at the foot of the front garden by the time Riffolk left the house. Looking over his shoulder, he was struck by how intimidating his own home appeared tonight, a looming black beast squatting on the hill, the few lit windows like eyes of flame.
He neared the group, pale faces turning to greet him.
“Ready?” another lad in a foil suit emerged.
Riffolk nodded. One or two looked straight at his visor for longer than he was comfortable with.
The other foil suit handed over a weighty silver firearm, their voice muffled by the mask’s breathing apparatus but ominous all the same: “We’ve orders to kill tonight.”
Riffolk’s mask was filling with condensation, his skin slick with sweat. He could barely see their expressions through the mist on his visor.
“Move, Mr Ditillio reported sighting the runaway not far from the house.”
He followed, a tightening in his chest. The runaway? Plus, Ditillio knew better than to cross the boundary; he’d said so himself on plenty of occasions.
The suit ahead crossed through the plasma barrier. He waved back.
Riffolk hesitated. He recalled what happened to the orange skin he’d thrown into the energy field: disintegrated, just like that. The lad before had passed by unscathed, though. Maybe it was deactivated, to some degree. A non-lethal setting, but still acting as a visible deterrent.
Riffolk jogged at the buzzing green barrier.
Light engulfed him.
The acrid scent of the world seemed to permeate the very fabric of his suit. It reminded him of his kitchen after attempting a drunken fry-up, the kind of stubborn odour that would not leave.
Two large homes sat on the opposite edges of his vision. Who had previously lived there, Riffolk couldn’t recall; he determined this was again due to memory loss by cryonics, but ultimately remembered how little he had bothered to know his neighbours back then.
“Are you coming along?”
A waggled finger from the foil suit ahead.
On the ground, masked by char, were littered human bones. A shrivelled yellow placard rested on a nest of bones, the words ‘LET US IN’ penetrating all manner of dust and detritus and triggering a storm of acidic guilt in Riffolk’s stomach.
He couldn’t remember the time of the actual missile launch but a memory hovered in his brain of the hysteria beforehand, the floods of vehicles piling into the lane. Some had crushed or trapped others as they fought to the front, hoping the plasma field would shield them too.
“This is the place.”
The home to their right was a blackened frame; crumbling columns struggling to hold aloft the upper floor, absent walls where there used to be huge glass panels. What would have been a piece of pristine real estate looked kissed by atomic fire.
“Mr Ditillio?” called his companion.
“Richard? Finally! Upstairs!”
The lad jogged up the partially collapsed stairwell. Riffolk followed.
On the second floor, all was quiet.
“Ditillio?” he yelled, holding back the urge to vomit at the stench. Something caused a loud thud in the bedroom to his right, and he spun sharply.
Crooked shadows were projected up the walls by dying daylight.
Swallowing hard, Riffolk crept into the bedroom. The door was lying flat on the floor alongside scattered magazines and clothing.
A dark hand fired at him suddenly, an open palm catching his breathing mask.
Riffolk stumbled backwards into the wall, swatted at the advancing figure. Its shape was jagged, wild almost.
Snatching at a limb, Riffolk restrained the figure; they swung their legs frantically, connecting with his shins. He yelped and shoved the attacker backwards, where they stumbled on debris.
Riffolk unclasped the gun from his belt.
“Who the hell are you?” asked Riffolk. He saw the dust-smeared face on which clung a crusted beard. “Wait— you’re the one that was watching me that night? You were in the house next door.”
The man stopped moving. He looked him up and down, panting.
That’s when Riffolk noticed: the weary eyes, the narrow bridge. The hair was longer, but not as groomed as his own.
“You’re—” he gasped. The man squinted, curious.
Riffolk checked the hallway. Still no sign of his wayward manservant and the lad in the foil suit. He returned to the stranger.
“I guess you’ll start talking if you know who you’re talking to,” and he pulled off the hood, taking the mask and visor with it. Sour air flushed into his lungs immediately. The man was visibly taken aback to see Riffolk’s face.
“How is any of this possible?” asked Riffolk, pulling his mask back on.
“It’s not. Not without the money to buy it, that is.”
Riffolk edged over to the stranger, keeping his voice low. “What’s going on? They’re after you, aren’t they?”
“This isn’t the first time they’ve done this. Nor is it the first time they’ve hunted me. The bastards tend to kill in order.”
“Who have they been killing?”
The stranger levelled his blood-red eyes at him. “Armand Riffolk.”
A chill rattled through Riffolk’s bones, even in the suffocating warmth of the suit.
“Us? Us?! There shouldn’t even be an ‘us!’ I am Armand Riffolk and have been for over forty years.”
“You’re some aberration, a trick of the fallout. I have to get back to the villa.” Riffolk made for the door.
The stranger latched onto the sleeve of the suit. “If you walk back to that house, you’re playing their game. Go back to your sloth and your routine, the daylight bulbs and the terrible breakfasts. Your time will come, eventually. They’ll toss you on your ass, as they did me, and then set the dogs on you.”
A gentle breeze coursed through the dead house, rustling strewed papers and the dried branches on the trees in the yard. All else was silent.
“So, you were around before me?”
“And the one before you, even,” said the stranger. “I’ve been out here a long time.”
The crunch of boots on the debris in the hall, picking up speed. Two bodies stomped through the open doorway.
“Your good fortune has finally run out, sir,” came a nasally voice. Ditillio blocked the escape, a rifle in his hands. Following him was the lad, Richard.
“My faithful manservant,” said the stranger, words dripping in sarcasm.
“At your service. Or was, I suppose,” Ditillio turned to the masked Riffolk, who had pressed himself against the back wall. “You: excellent job catching this one. We knew he would tire of the chase eventually.”
The stranger said, “Why do this? Do you really loathe me this much?”
Raising his rifle, Ditillio sneered. “I cannot think of anything I detest more in this wretched world, Armand Riffolk. Your existence makes the collapse of modern society look like a minor inconvenience by comparison. Decades I have waited on you and your family, watched your poor mother wither as her brain robbed her of her memories, only to leave me stuck with you— the ungrateful master— and bear witness to all manner of depravity and foolishness as you drove your parents’ legacy into the dust!” His seething voice quivered.
“Cloning me doesn’t make sense, in that case,” and the stranger stared at Riffolk, who was frozen in place at the back.
“Your father’s equipment and lab space made that all possible, God rest his soul.” Ditillio chuckled. “My boy, it’s been so long since the original Armand were around, I can’t even recall what year it was. But I do know I’ve enjoyed overseeing the end of each and every iteration since.”
At the mention of time, Riffolk unfastened his glove and looked at his watch. The hands weren’t spinning out here; they now read a quarter to nine.
“What about the staff? Why are they acting bizarre?” his voice struggled to come out. “Next you’ll be telling us they are clones too.”
“Ridiculous! The staff are suffering; temporal sickness, whatever you would call it. Too long inside the plasma field—” Ditillio glared in his direction, realisation slowly crossing his features. “You!” Behind him, his subordinate suddenly appeared very sheepish, inching for the door. “The staff will let anyone wander the ruins at night, it seems.”
On the sill, the stranger was coaxing something into his hand. Debris, a jagged rock, Riffolk noticed.
Ditillio pointed the rifle between the two, internally debating when to pull the trigger. He scoffed at Riffolk, shakily holding a gun. Here was a man who knew the master better than himself, a man who had burrowed down into his very core at the genetic level.
“I trusted you,” said Riffolk, lip shaking.
“Forget it. There’s no reasoning with the help!” said the stranger.
“Don’t make this more of a chore, masters,” Ditillio said, panting like a riled dog. “Let me have this, God help me, let me have something!”
The stranger hurled the rugged rock, roaring.
Gunshots lit the remains of the house, popping in and out of existence like the light from a camera’s flashbulbs.
Parts of the group broke off, returning to the house out of boredom or cold. It wasn’t long before one of the housekeepers spotted the two figures on the horizon, ambling amongst the wrecks in the street towards them.
The groundsman nearest started for the path with a groan.
“Mr Ditillio will want the next Mr Riffolk brought out of stasis, won’t he?”
“Not yet. The current one’s still sleeping in his room right now. He’ll have to be dealt with first, I’d say. But we can do that when sir gets in.”
They cast a look down the street, the two specks were much closer now. One had a rifle slung on his back. The thought of Mr Ditillio returning and bringing some order to proceedings once again was a relieving one.
“On second thought: go rouse another of the masters from cryo. We can have another hunt to round off the day. Even if it’s just ‘round the estate.”
The groundsman marched off up the path with one of the maids in tow.
The plasma barrier buzzed away gently, a poor substitute for cicadas, the housekeeper thought. His mind ran free with anticipation for the next chase, an excitement that made saliva collect at the corners of his mouth.
The specks were at the front gate.
The housekeeper reached for one of the bricks in the wall and removed a plastic cap, pressing in the four-digit code on the keypad underneath. The barrier’s tone dropped in pitch, and the two passed through.
Excitement was building among the others.
Ascending the curling path and stopping in front of the scattered crowd, the two foil suits removed their masks.
S.R Malone is a science fiction writer living just outside Edinburgh, Scotland. He has been published in Synthetic Reality Magazine, 365 Tomorrows and Entropy-Squared. When he is not writing or reading, he likes to spend time with his family and their dog, going for long walks and outings.