Civilization falls in one place but rises in another.
—Annalee Newitz, Reddit AMA
SEPTEMBER 1, 2025
I’M NOT ALONE OUT HERE, Benji thought. It was in the air—a white noise vibration, the faintest disruption of the silence that had seized the world.
Over the years here in Ouray, as the Sleepwalkers slept, and eventually as they awakened, he’d seen something up here, west of town. A bird, he’d thought at the time. But it glinted a bit in the sun. And it didn’t move like a bird, not at all. One time, a couple years back, he’d seen it again on a foggy day—a shape moving above the trees before dropping straight down. A year later, as evening settled in, he saw it once more, maybe a quarter mile off: a dark little mote, like a crow. It rushed forward, then went fast in the opposite direction before again disappearing.
Benji had been chasing it ever since. He came out here a couple times a week—to get in a walk, to help feed the townsfolk by hunting deer in the spring or bighorn in the winter, but also just on the off chance he’d spy it again.
He felt like a crazy person. No one else had seen it. But Benji was a man of both science and faith. He had faith he’d see it again. A hypothesis he tested often.
This morning, he’d gone off the Oak Creek trail, stalking an old deer path through the spruce, about midway up to the overlook on Hayden Mountain.
And he was sure that today was the day. He could feel it in his teeth. He knew he wasn’t alone out here: a fact that both thrilled him and troubled him in equal measure. Because being alone out here wasn’t good. The world was mostly gone. Civilization with it. So, if it wasn’t a person out here—and if it wasn’t the little UFO he’d been tracking—then that could mean a black bear.
Or worse, a mountain lion.
Such predators didn’t care much for human prey, especially now that those animals were no longer forced to forage for garbage or human food—but should he come upon one with its family nearby? He’d be torn to red ribbons.
His hands tightened around the cold metal of the Winchester lever-action rifle. And then, ahead, he heard something. Not a telltale snap of twig or crunch of leaf. No, this sound was a low, mechanical whine, like a distant drill spinning.
Not a bear. Not a cougar.
And it was coming closer.
He brought the butt of the weapon to his shoulder but kept the barrel low. His heartbeat kicked up like a galloping horse.
That sound, closing in. Ahead, he saw something shake the leaves of an aspen, and shudder the branches of a blue spruce.
There was a beat where he heard nothing, saw nothing—But then Benji staggered back as a shape broke through the tree line onto the trail just ahead of him. The rifle went up—and down the sights, he saw what had emerged:
A drone. No bigger than a dinner plate and matte gray with four propellers—two in the back raised up, and two in the front down low, the way that a crab held its claws. The drone hovered midair and pivoted care-fully toward him. Four red lights marked the corners beneath each propeller, and underneath its body, in a wire mesh cage, was what looked like a camera.
The drone was filthy and corroded. Bits of twig and vegetation dangled from it. It hovered about thirty feet in front of him.
He almost laughed. There it was. He’d found it. He hadn’t lost his mind!
“Who are you?” he asked. It felt foolish to ask it a question: The drone was a device, not a person. But it did have a camera. And someone had to be piloting it, right? Unless it was autonomous. Weren’t there stories from years ago about drones flying over the Western states? Google, perhaps? Bureau of Land Management? But could such a drone still be powered up and flying about?
The drone continued to hover in place. As if it was regarding him the same way he was regarding it.
And then, just like that, it spun the opposite direction and darted away from him. Benji had no time to think, so he let his body react: He levered a round into the chamber, thumbed off the safety, took aim, and—The gun bucked against his shoulder as he pulled the trigger. His ears lost all sound as he discharged the weapon, and now Benji cursed himself, because he needed his ears out here. He didn’t want the sound of a mountain lion creeping up on him to be lost underneath a crush of tinnitus. Damnit.
He set his jaw and broke into a run, bolting down the trail. He saw the glint of the drone buzzing through the trees ahead, and he had no confidence in his ability to catch it—it glided through the air effortlessly, without any friction to hinder its escape. Benji, meanwhile, hard-charged forward—though he was older these days, he was stronger, faster, more physically capable than he’d been in the Beforetimes (as Shana and some of the other townsfolk called it). Just the same, the trail was uneven, overgrown, hewn roughly from the landscape as if by a crude, broken-tipped knife. It narrowed ahead, too, and he had to tighten his gait even as the drone zipped forward.
I could stop. I could shoot again. One last chance, a last shot, to take the drone down. If only to see what it was, maybe where it came from. So he lifted the rifle again—but somewhere, his body made a grave miscalculation, concentrating for one moment on the gun and the drone ahead but not on the trail beneath his feet. He felt his footstep just off the trail, into a patch of Indian ricegrass deeper than expected—his heel dropped far, too far, and the ankle twisted. With it, a pop. The gun went off, the shot going high, and then he felt his whole body shift hard—
His shoulder hit the ground first. His head smacked down next. The rest of his body slammed into the earth and turned end over end, down the slope he went. Dry grasses and shrub branches whipped past, clawing at his face. The gun was gone now, and his hands scrambled to stop his descent—but they only pinwheeled as he somersaulted down the slope, scree sliding with him. The world spun like he was in a washing machine, and then—
Wham. His shoulder and back—and then the base of his skull—slammed hard into a bone-white birch tree. His ears rang. His vision radiated out, ripples on disturbed water. His tongue felt fat. He tasted blood.
Truth was, as Benji hunted the drone, something else had been hunting him.
And now that he lay slumped against the tree, blood drooling over his lip, looking up at a robin’s egg sky, breathing in air that tasted as crisp as paper, the beast had found him, and pinned him to the earth with its claws.
This wasn’t the first time it had found him. It always found him in quiet moments like this, didn’t it?
Benji heard no planes, no engines, no distant murmur of voices. He heard the trill of a mountain bluebird. He heard wind whisking through the comb-tines of spruce trees. In the early days of his time in Ouray, after the fall of the world under the onslaught of White Mask, he remembered the first time he noticed the absence of a particular sound: a background hum like the almost-imperceptible white noise of a television turned on a few rooms away. It was the sound of people. And it was gone. Humankind remained in the world, but it was no longer its master.
It was terrible.
It was wonderful.
But it wasn’t so clean and easy as survivor’s guilt, oh no. This was a more peculiar thing, like one of those complicated emotions only the Germans had a word for. Yes, there was the guilt of having survived—of not deserving survival when so many others, like Sadie, did. But worse and stranger still was that Benji...
Well, Benji didn’t hate this new world. It was peaceful in a way he’d never really experienced before. No machinery. No gunfire. No fireworks, no traffic, no car horns honking, no dirt bikes, no helicopters overhead, no leaf blowers next door, no sirens, no nine to five, no cellphone ringing, no Twitter, no Facebook, no TikTok, no email, no spam calls, no junk mail, no meetings, none of it.
There was only stillness. And there was solace in that stillness.
Was it better for the world that humankind had been shaken from it like so many fleas? He hated wondering that. His cold clinician’s assessment was that the world was healing in a way it couldn’t have, had White Mask not ravaged the world. Yes, Benji felt the grief and sorrow of so much pain, so much death, so many lives lost. Lives and minds and hearts. Mothers and fathers, scientists and writers, clergymen and librarians and doctors and astronauts and, and, and...(And Sadie. Just thinking her name almost knocked him out cold.) All taken by the mind-thieving fungus, either directly or by the chaos that choked civilization and drove it to its knees. The world had gone to a massive graveyard.
The air, so clear. The world, so quiet. What settled upon it (what settled upon him) was an intrusive, insistent serenity that he intimately knew was cruel and grotesque, an aberration...but that didn’t stop him from feeling it.
Even now, above his head—he saw dark birds, birds like boomerangs, kiting through the sky.
The black swift.
(And any time he thought of that bird, the black swift, how could he not also think of Black Swan? The artificial intelligence who, linked with its future self, saw the end of the world coming and prepared for it by creating the very Sleepwalker Flock that Benji helped to Shepherd to Ouray in the first place.)
The bird appeared here to prove a point, it seemed. As if the universe were trying to speak to him, to answer his guilt. See, the black swift was a rara avis in the truest sense: a creature once in grave decline in the United States. A sooty gray bird, the black swift hid its mossy mud-cup nests on cliff-faces and in caves behind outcropped trees or behind cascading water-falls. The waterfall of Ouray’s Box Canyon (Sadie’s waterfall, he thought with a consumptive pit forming in his middle) was home to a population of black swifts. They’d come in spring, lay a single egg in those mossy nests, and hunt for flying insects, such as ants and beetles. They wheeled about, their pick-axe wings chipping away at the sky. Then, after raising their young, they’d all leave before winter, heading to the Amazon lowlands. For years, the black swift numbers had continuously dwindled—not because of unfriendly conditions in Ouray, but rather, as their second home in the rain forest was plundered by vicious, greedy men. And with the rain forest died a library of nature, a body of flora and fauna that could never return.
As the rain forest fell, so did the black swift of Ouray.
Or, would have, had it not been for White Mask.
Benji knew the black swift was in decline only from reading a book he’d found in the Ouray library about the birds of Colorado. Because from his own experience now, the birds were in no danger at all. In the five years he’d been in Colorado, he saw their numbers increase year over year, from just a handful the first year, then a few more the year after, until in the third year their numbers exploded, easily doubling. Five years later, the birds were everywhere. And they’d taken on new prey: fir engraver beetles and spruce beetles. The bird eating those bugs then helped to slow the rapid decline of Ouray’s blue spruces and Douglas fir trees. More birds then meant more trees. The return of the black swift meant healthier forests all around Ouray—
And, Benji guessed, it signaled a returning Amazonian rain forest.
All that, due to the sharp die-off of Earth’s most offensive resident:
Again, it made him sick to think of it that way. He was human. Sadie was human. The Flock, the Shepherds, and all that remained beyond Ouray, they were all human. And they all deserved a chance at life.
And those who died did not deserve their death.
But here they were. The world, the people-free world, was healing. Better off without us, he thought gravely.
As he lay there, a hard birch as his pillow, his ears still ringing, guilt running through him like a fever, his vision cleared.
And there, in front of him, was the biggest goddamn wolf Benji had ever seen. Here to finish the job, Benji thought madly. Rid this place of us.
The wolf lifted its lip and showed its teeth in a low, thunder-rumble growl.