Science FictionStrange

This Is the Ice Age

By Claude Lalumière
3,501 words · 13-minute reading time
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Distorted cars litter the bridge, quantum ice fractalling outward from their engines, from the circuits of their dashboards. The ice has burst from their chassis, creating random new configurations of ice, technology, and anatomy.

There was no warning. In one moment the world changed: this is the ice age.

On our bicycles, Mark and I zigzag through the permanently stalled traffic. I try not to stare at the damaged bodies. But Mark is too engrossed to notice my queasiness. Too giddy. Goofy, even. For so many reasons, we were right to leave. Already, his face is brighter.

“Hey, Martha ... Did you see that couple in the blue SUV?”

I wish I hadn’t: ice snaked around their heads, crushing them together.

“Did you see—”

No, I didn’t see. I don’t look. At least I try not to. Mark copes in his own way; I can’t fault him for doing it differently. He never told me how he lost his parents, and I never told him how I lost mine. I should be numb to such sights by now. In the city, they’d become part of the landscape; we’d ignored them. We’d been too cold to notice. Too cold to care. Barely out of the city, and already we’re both thawing – at least a little.

I can’t bring myself to tell him to stop. So I just pedal faster. I race off the Jacques Cartier Bridge onto the highway, where the number of cars on the road decreases with distance, leaving Montreal behind, heading for...

...For a new world? Maybe. A different world, at least. I just want us to belong somewhere.

People say the whole planet is like this now. But how can they be sure? Nothing works anymore. No television, no telephones, no computers, no radios. There’s no way to communicate.

But they must be right. If the rest of the world were still intact, someone would have rescued us by now. The Army. The United States. Someone. Anyone.

“Martha!”

I look back, and Mark is pedalling hard to catch up to me.

I love how the wind lifts his long, dark hair. His smile is like a little boy’s. Already, I’ve forgiven him for being so morbid, for being so wrapped up in his grotesque passion that he couldn’t notice my distress.

Since I’ve known him, Mark has always protected me. Now he’s relaxing about that. I like him even more this way.

He catches up to me, and we stop. We gaze at the transmuted cityscape we are leaving behind.

The sunlight’s reflection almost blinds me; ice blankets the Island of Montreal. The skyscrapers of the financial district have been transformed into macabre, twisted spires. The tall downtown hotels bulge with ice – the tumorous limbs of a tentacled leviathan. Like a bed of gems, the city catches the sunlight and glows. Even the heat generated by all this light cannot dispel the cold. The air carries an autumn chill, even though it’s mid-July. The ice radiates cold. It never melts; it’s so hard it can’t even break.

The Quantum Cross, the icon of the city’s new order, rests atop Mount Royal.

I close my eyes, not yet ready to cry. Eager to forget. But the memories come anyway.

All I did was shut my eyes, and the world took on a new shape.

Sunday afternoon: my sister in the upstairs bathroom, obsessing over her looks; my parents driving out to the airport to meet Grandma. Me: by the living room window, reading a book, curled up in the coziest armchair. I can’t remember which book.

Here’s what I remember: the sky was radiantly blue, and the sunlight hit the window with a harsh brightness. I had a slight headache. From reading, from the light.

Music: a trance/jungle mix spun in the CD player.

I closed my eyes. The music stopped abruptly. I heard a weird crunching sound. A cool wave washed over me. My eyes snapped open. The television looked like a cubist mobile of the Milky Way. In place of the stereo, a crystal statue of a lizard demon crowned with looping horns. The lamps were now surrealist bouquets. Pearly spikes punched through the walls, especially near electrical outlets and lightswitches.

In the distance, screams rose against the background of cold silence.

I shivered.

My sister, Jocelyne, would never meet her boyfriend again. In the upstairs bathroom I found her skull, neck, and chest skewered by the ice sprouting from her hairdryer.

I hurried outside, onto streets lined with transformed buildings, arrayed with wrecked, deformed vehicles. Wires barbed with ice dangled from poles and walls, lay splattered all over. An instant alien landscape transposed onto a familiar urban grid.

I ran. It was all I could do. I ran, trying to escape the affected zone. I ran. And ran.

Until I stumbled on my parents’ car. They were smeared on the seat leather, pulverized by the ice.

I looked around. I’d reached the expressway. As far as I could see, there was evidence of the transformation. For the first time I noticed the new shape of the giant electric cross atop Mount Royal: a violent explosion frozen midblast. Towering over the city, the metamorphosed cross kept a vigil over this new world, claiming dominion.

Since that first day, I hadn’t ventured outside. How long ago had that been? I was almost out of food. I awoke sporadically. Sometimes I snacked on stale crackers. I’d exhausted the canned goods. Days ago? Weeks?

In this new ice age, the ceaseless hum of automobile traffic had finally been quieted. The sound of airplanes no longer wafted down from above.

The city was silent. Cold and silent. I felt that silence in the hollow of my bones. The cold had seeped into me, had hardened my insides, had slowed the beat of my heart.

I stared out the window at the unchanging landscape and fell asleep again, to dreams of silent jets falling from the sky.

Even in my dreams, I heard him. Yet, I stayed asleep. The sounds of him taking and releasing his breath replaced the silenced engines.

Eventually, I woke, his presence gradually imprinting itself on me. And then I saw him: sitting on the edge of my bed.

He said, “Hi,” neither smiling nor frowning. Waiting.

He had long black hair, and he was maybe a year or two older – almost a man. But he had the face of a little boy, and dark eyes so big that I saw deep into him, saw how he’d been hurt by the coldness of the world. Although I had never met him before, I knew him. In that moment I knew him.

“My name is Mark,” he said; louder than a whisper, but without inflection.

I rested my head on his thigh. The touch of his callused fingertips against my scalp shot sparks of warmth through my body, began thawing the cold that had settled within me. I filled my lungs with air. The smell of his sweat eased the flow of my blood. I let go of my breath and moaned drowsily. I fell asleep again. No more falling jets. Finally, I rested.

“Quantum ice. Call it quantum ice.” Daniel coined the term. The expression stuck. We heard it whispered everywhere by Montrealers who roamed their transfigured city like zombies.

Daniel was Mark’s brother, but they were so different. Mark was tall and calm. Handsome. Daniel was short and nervous. Funny looking, in a bad way. And loud. Always chattering, listening to himself rhapsodize. His eyes were wild, always darting here and there, unable to focus on anything, or on anyone.

We saw Daniel infrequently. Usually when he wanted to bum food off his brother. Mark wanted him to stay with us, but, to my relief, Daniel resisted the idea. He’d disappear for days, waiting for Mark to fall asleep before he wandered off.

Daniel had his theory about the ice age. A bomb, he thought. A quantum bomb. The project of the rogue R&D department of some corporate weapons manufacturer. He claimed his blogging community used to keep track of things like that. He said reality – physics – had been changed at a fundamental level. Old technologies no longer worked. We needed a new scientific paradigm. Other things might have changed. Our bodies might not work quite the same way anymore. Nature might have changed. The food chain. The air. Gravity.

Daniel was a bit younger than I was; he certainly couldn’t have been more than fifteen. He looked like the type who, before the ice age, got beat up on his way home from school. But the ice age had changed him; it had changed everyone. Daniel spoke with the intensity of the insane. A prophet desperate to convert his audience.

He was full of shit. Daniel was as ignorant as the rest of us. Nobody could know the truth. Maybe the ice had really been caused by aliens, or by magic, or ... Maybe God had sneezed, or something. Probably, yes, it had been a bomb. Did it really matter? We couldn’t bring back the dead. Besides, there was no proof anything beyond electrical technology had been affected. Fractals of quantum ice had erupted from the cores of our machines, from the wires that carried electricity, from the circuits and engines that fed on electric power. It had taken at most a few seconds between when everything stopped working and when the quantum ice appeared and expanded.

The state of the world: this strange new ice age.

Society had broken down. No social workers swooping down on orphaned kids. We had to take care of ourselves now. No more school. I didn’t miss it. I didn’t miss the jerks staring at my suddenly developed breasts. I didn’t miss the other girls thinking I was too bookish and nerdy to be friends with.

Some fears make you flee, others make you stay. Mark said hundreds of thousands of people had already left the city. Many more must have died. At least a million people, we estimated. In hospitals. In cars. In elevators. On escalators. In front of computers. Using appliances. Snapping photos. Shooting videos. Taking food out of the fridge. Carrying a phone in your pocket meant ice bored into your pelvis. The technology that triggered the ice was everywhere.

The corpses, too, were everywhere. The city should have reeked of rot and decay, but the ice preserved what it touched. I ignored the dead. Every day, no matter where we went, Mark and I saw the bodies claimed by the ice, but we never mentioned them.

There were still thousands of survivors who had stayed behind. They wandered the streets, lost, alone, barely aware of each other. The cold seeped into everyone.

Mark kept me warm, but I still hadn’t thawed completely. I hadn’t even cried yet. The placid coolness of the ice age, that utter absence of emotion, was almost comforting.

Together, Mark and I fought off the encroaching cold.

We played hide-and-seek in deserted malls. The electronics shops were frozen supernovas.

We explored the metro tunnels. The flames of hand-held torches, reflected on blooms of quantum ice, lit our way.

We walked on rooftops, holding hands, the ice-encrusted city spread below us.

At night, Mark spooned me. We went to bed with our clothes on. I took his hand and slipped it under my shirt, holding it tight against my stomach. He nuzzled my hair.

He always woke before me. Always came back with scavenged food.

One day, maybe we’d kiss.

Daniel acquired followers. He changed his name to Danny Quantum and started believing his own hype. It was creepy, the way these lost people gravitated toward him – obeyed him, even. Orphaned kids. Businessmen in suits that had known better days. Middle-aged women with hungry, desperate looks. Cybergeeks bereft of their only lifeline.

Daniel and his followers gathered in the heart of the city, on Mount Royal, below that monstrous thing that had once been a cross. Daniel turned it into the symbol of his new religion. He didn’t use the word religion, but that’s what it was.

Mark brought me to Daniel’s sermons. Daniel didn’t use the word sermon, but that’s what they were.

Feel-good catchphrases tinted with Nietzsche. New Age gobbledygook rationalized with scientific jargon. Cyberpunk animism. Catholic pomp sprinkled with evangelical alarmism. Eroticized psychobabble. Robert Bly mixed with Timothy Leary.

We’d climbed up some trees on the outer edge of the area where Danny Quantum’s rapt disciples sat and listened to the sermon. We heard every word. Daniel knew how to pitch his voice. He was good at this. Too good.

I said, “Don’t tell me you believe any of this nonsense.” For the first time, it occurred to me that maybe I couldn’t trust Mark. The cold seized my heart.

He said, “Of course not. But somebody has to keep an eye on Daniel. Who else is going to look out for him? Especially now.” Mark looked away as he spoke.

As far as Mark was aware, his brother was the only person he knew from before who’d survived the ice age – or who hadn’t left without a word in the initial panic. That Daniel was scary, that he was dangerous, Mark wasn’t ready to acknowledge.

A fractallized airplane blocked the intersection of St-Laurent and Ste-Catherine, its tail propped up by the ice-encrusted building on the corner, the tip of its nose run through the storefront window of a store the ice had altered beyond recognition. Even the force of a plane crash couldn’t shatter the quantum ice. Briefly, I wondered if it might have been Grandma’s plane.

Someone had painted a likeness of the transmogrified cross on the hull, with the words The Quantum Cross of the Ice Age below it. That day, everywhere we went, we noticed fresh graffiti of the Quantum Cross, on the asphalt of the streets, on store windows, on sidewalks, on brick walls, on concrete blocks.

The next day, Mark and I bicycled out to the airport and stared at the planes: massive dinosaurs with limbs of ice, gore, metal, and plastic.

Before going home – neither my old home nor Mark’s, but an abandoned townhouse near McGill University whose windows faced away from Mount Royal – Mark wanted to check in on his little brother. These days, Daniel never left the mountain. His acolytes brought food to him. Brought themselves to him.

I complained. “I’m too tired to bicycle all the way up there.” More truthfully, I was increasingly queasy around Daniel and his sycophants, and I was eager to collapse in Mark’s arms, even though the sun hadn’t set.

He insisted.

So we wound our way up the sinuous gravel path, occasionally encountering Daniel’s followers. Despite the cold, they wore white T-shirts – no coats, no jackets, no sweaters. On the shirts, in red, were crude drawings in thick dripping lines: bloody effigies of the Quantum Cross.

When we reached the cross itself, where Daniel’s congregation assembled, I noticed that they were all dressed this way, no longer individuals but a hive functioning with a single mind. Danny Quantum’s.

First I heard the singing. Mark had just beaten me at croquet for the third game in a row. I looked around, and then I spotted them: to the south of the croquet park, twenty or so people walking down the Jacques Cartier Bridge into Montreal.

One of them pointed at us, and the group headed our way. They waved and kept on singing. I thought I recognized the song. Something from the 1960s. The kind of stuff my parents listened to.

Mark waved back. He said, “Hold on to your mallet. If things get rough, swing for the head and knee them in the crotch.”

They seemed harmless. Approximately as many men as women. Long hair. Handmade clothes. Artsy-crafty jewellery. A bunch of latter-day hippies. The song wound down when they reached the edge of the park. I noticed a few of them looked more like bikers. I tightened my grip.

Only one of them came up to us. The one who looked more Saturday Night Fever than Hair.

He said, “Peace.”

Mark said, “Hi. Where are you folks from?”

“I’m from New York City. But we’re from all over. Vermont. Ottawa. Maine. Sherbrooke.”

Mark asked, “So, it’s like this everywhere?”

“It’s like this everywhere we’ve been. The whole world has changed. So many tragic deaths.” But he made it sound almost cheerful, like a TV ad.

Mark grunted. Something about Saturday Night Fever – his calculating eyes, his used-car salesman voice – made me distrust him immediately.

“Are you two youngsters alone? It’s safer to stay in a large group. We’re gathering people to form a commune. To survive in this new age. To repopulate. We need children. Strong, healthy children.”

His eyes appraised me, lingering on my hips. I tensed my arms, ready to swing. Mark shifted, his body shielding me from Saturday Night Fever’s gaze.

“Well, I wish you folks the best. It sounds like a great project.”

“You and your friend should join us. We’d be happy to welcome you.” He addressed Mark, but his eyes kept straying to my body.

“Thanks, but we’re good here. This is home.”

Three of the men in the group were big. Wrestler big. No way Mark and I could stop them if they decided to add me to their baby factory by force.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. Anyway, we should be on our way. Good luck.” Mark took my hand, and we walked away. We held on to our mallets.

Mark slept. He didn’t know, but I’d stayed awake through the previous two nights.

His mouth was slightly open, and he was almost snoring. I loved all of his sounds, even the silly ones. I traced his lips with my index finger; it didn’t rouse him, but he moaned. It was a delicious noise.

I stared at him all night, scrutinizing every detail of him.

Dawn broke. As Mark stirred, I pretended to sleep.

The night Danny Quantum and his followers started sacrificing cats and dogs, I told Mark, “We have to leave.”

I was bundled under three layers of sweaters, but the cold still bit. Even the heat from the fires around the Quantum Cross couldn’t keep me warm. I was tempted to lean into Mark, for warmth, for comfort, but I needed to talk to him, and for that I had to stay focused.

“You tired?”

“No. I mean, go away. Off the island. Leave all this behind. Find somewhere else to live. Somewhere far. Somewhere safer.”

I wanted him to say, Yes, I’ll go anywhere with you.

He said, “Who’ll protect Daniel? If I go, he’ll just get worse. He’ll be lost forever.”

“Then talk to him. Make him stop this before...”

“It’s not that easy. Not that simple. He doesn’t hear what he doesn’t want to. This is his way of coping. We’ve all lost too much.”

“You know where this is heading. Soon, it’ll be people being shishkebabed to satisfy Danny Quantum’s megalomania. To feed the hungry bellies of his flock.”

I didn’t look at Mark. I didn’t want his dark eyes to sway me. I stared at the fires burning at the foot of the Quantum Cross. I looked at Daniel, prancing and shouting. Like the maniac that he was.

“I’m leaving tomorrow morning. Getting away from Daniel. Far away. Find somewhere to grow food. Somewhere with fresh water. Head south, maybe.”

Could I leave without Mark? I wanted to kiss him. Would I ever? Even after all we’d shared, the cold still held our hearts in its grip.

“Don’t, Martha. Don’t make me choose.” He turned his face away from mine and stared at his brother in the distance. When he continued, his voice was firm – firm enough to sting. “Besides, we’ve always lived in the city. What do you know about farming, or even about gathering food in the wild?”

“We can learn how to survive.” Despite myself, doubt had crept into my voice.

Was I willing to stay and let this drama play out, despite its inevitable horrors? Wherever I would end up away from here, there might be other Saturday Night Fevers or Danny Quantums. Or maybe even worse.

One of Danny’s people handed Mark a wooden stick. There was a roasted, skewered cat on it.

I said, “Are you going to eat that?”

He said, “I’ll go with you. Anywhere.”

The wind on my face, the smell of grass and trees tickling my nose, I race down the deserted road.

Mark is with me. Laughing. I laugh, too.

In the fields there are cows. Horses. Dogs. Sometimes people.

Some of them wave at us, smiling. Some of them shoot at us, warning us away.

We’re not ready to stop yet.

This story originally appeared in Mythspring: From the Lyrics & Legends of Canada (2006), edited by Julie Czerneda & Genevieve Kierans.


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Author: Claude Lalumière

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