The Above Society

By Jack Croughwell




That was her problem with people. They never died when she needed them to. The Countess feigned ambivalence as best she could, wrung her hands together on the viewing platform and praying that no one clocked her cloak was rented. On the main screen were Numbers 567*9 and 567*88, who went by their earthly names Waynetta and her daughter Nell, who were currently attempting to light a fire in the middle of the northern Canadian tundra, just outside a deserted garage. It had been two weeks since the planet’s apocalypse. If the Earthers survived another week, but no longer than two, The Countess got her money.

The Society station above the planet was cloaked. The whole thing was about fifteen miles wide and operated as a functional city. The Countess’s cover story was that she was trying to downsize. Her quarters were a quarter of what they used to be and the shame of it meant spending more time on the viewing decks. Deck 18 had live coverage of Waynetta and Nell. They were popular viewing this year. The lounges on 18 swelled with gamesters. Folks from across the galaxy, long purveyors of the apocalypse bouts. It was the purest form of gambling, many believed. The Countess herself swore by that. Nobody knew a planet would collapse until it did. She once considered herself a savant at finding a wise bet. Now, here she was in a rented cloak, listening to the cheers of winners trickling in from the closing decks.

A familiar face had taken to Deck 18. Prince Olm of the Sheafbacks had cordoned off a booth for him and his entourage, a smattering of boys from proud houses across the stars, each picked up from one conquest or another. Olm was a masterful gamester. He shipped home each cycle a champion of the bouts, with such unlikely odds that those who didn’t marvel at his luck believed such success was conspiracy. The Countess was of the latter group. She drank her wine at an unreserved table, alone, and hoping that the myth of her grand fortune from her days investing in the quarries of Funil and brokering peace between the Sheafbacks and the Haymons still afforded her a certain gravity. She loved her resume. She hated just about everything else.

And in such light, The Countess failed to admire the humans’ tenacity. Just one deck over there was coverage of an older man, number 303*J in a secluded region of Zimbabwe, who hadn’t known his world had ended until he went into town. He cried every once in a while, but carried on as he had done. The lifers here at the Society liked the humans with longevity because it gave them something to root for in the long-term. To The Countess, it wasn’t entertainment. Waynetta and Nell got their fire lit, for some reason inside the deserted garage, and half of Deck 18 cheered, the other half cursed. Olm and The Countess were among the cheerful. They locked eyes across the room. The prince raised a glass to her. 

A server dressed in black brought The Countess another drink. She was surprised, because she was counting coins this cycle and every drink added up. If she had to return to Tendrill, there was not avoiding the shark. “Excuse me, miss,” the waiter spoke, gave a bow. “This is a gift from Prince Olm. He requests that you join him.”

“Don’t suppose it would be wise to decline, would it?” she replied. She downed the last of the glass she had. The waiter kept silent as she swiped the wine from the tray. 

The viewing decks flooded with golden light. It was gauche for some and unconscionably elegant for others. The Countess primed herself in the floor’s reflection before condescending to meet the prince. He sat at the heart of the booth, surrounded by the drunk and cheering, the sober and lost. 

“Aha!” he cheered. The Sheafbacks as an empire, to The Countess’s understanding, had always erred on the side of the boisterous. Fun at parties, annoying everywhere else. “The illustrious Countess. I’m honored. Did we not share a deck some years back?”

“I have volleyed between decks for the past few years,” was her reply. “I often wonder how our members could gamble it all on just one or two survivors.”

“With respect, I disagree,” said the prince. “I like to invest in one deck. One set of survivors. If they didn’t make it, then I would move to another. Jumping around it all—well, it all seems a touch too random.”

The prince’s entourage parted to offer The Countess a seat. How upsetting, she thought, a deck full of political upstarts and celebrity chasers and it was she who he had chosen. The Countess was sore, as the prince had superseded the offers she had made on the Banks of Tendrill and the watermines of Io. She had been strongarmed out so many times, the shark had lost the old kindness he had for her. On the screen, Waynetta and Nell cooked canned beans over their fire. Nell, who was a teenager (the analysts placed her at about fourteen years) clumsily held a firearm at the mouth of a garage. Waynetta loved to make comments on the food. She was unaccustomed to this brand of providing. The last can of beans she cooked over the open flame were hot at the bottom and frozen solid in the center. Deck 18 erupted into laughter. Gamesters ran back to the betting desk to revise their predictions. Prince Olm reached across with a bottle of red and refilled The Countess’s glass. She had been gunning through it with inadvisable speed. 

Olm himself was rather handsome, but he had the arrogance of invincible youth about him. He gambled outside of the Society often. Like Io and Tendrill. His mother was famously upset with the time he spent away from the star system, but he always came home with wealth to cover his absence. Strangely enough, The Countess reckoned, the Sheafbacks were not unlike the humans in their composition. Imperfect skin, bipedal, the Sheafbacks tended to be more florescent across all departments, but the shapes were the same. “Have I caught your eye, Countess?” he asked. She came back to herself.

“Much too young for me, I’m afraid,” she said. 

“I appreciate the candor. I hope there are no ill spirits between us. I know how you tried to get in on that dreadful business on Tendrill.”

“It was a shame to have my offer trumped so early on. Immediately, some would say.”

“You know the bankers; they love a sound investment.”

“I trust that you do not wish to imply my money is not sound.”

He laughed. “Of course not, Countess. You are a veteran of these halls. I should shudder to think anyone would hazard disrespect.” He drank. With a well-playacted flick, he got wine on The Countess’s cloak. She swore and reached for the napkins, and began to daub. It was two million credits if damaged. She missed the days of such pocket change. 

The Countess was shocked by the prince’s audacity. He was testing her, surely. She removed the cloak to feel the cool, clammy air of Deck 18, of the sweat-painted tourists wandering through, and she handed her cloak off to the server. “Clean this,” she spoke crisply, reentering the role of someone with money. 

It was a small bit of luck then that the screen alit with gunfire. The humans had eaten their beans in tepid silence. From afar, a blast had shot into the garage, a bullet colliding with the flame. Embers scattered across the floor, nestled in a tinder pile, beside a cord of firewood. The house the humans had found was the only one for miles in any direction. The fire broke free of its pit. It was clear on Waynetta’s face that they either stay inside and burn, or rush out and face the hidden marksman. The Countess put her hands on the table. She couldn’t return to Tendrill. The humans, they couldn’t die for another week. The Countess had nothing left, and if she returned home without money it was, well, she couldn’t do that. No need to dwell. Perhaps the shark would be gentle. 

The prince called out, “Can we see the shooter? Where’s the shooter?” And the screen split. We saw the shooter sat in a tree, an old blind for caribou. His number was 554*7, his name was Weston. The Deck 18 operators played a brief recap of Weston’s journey on the displays built into the tables. He had been hiking in Alberta when everyone died. There was a moment of static in the recording, but after he traveled home, and then tracked down survivors for supplies ever since. The Society had been following him on Deck 32. The cheers must be exploding over there. Half of 18 began rooting for him. Some who were vindictive that Waynetta and Nell had survived beyond their payout window, some dead-quiet in eagerness, revitalized with the hope that they lost when the humans managed to light their fire. 

“Your payout isn’t until next week, isn’t it, Countess?” Olm said. She didn’t care for the relish in his voice. The Countess’s heart sank—she wondered what else he knew about her if he had looked into her bets. She had always been so careful. 

“If you will excuse me,” she tried to evacuate the booth. The prince’s men wouldn’t allow her.

Innocuously enough, Olm said, “Countess, you can’t miss this!”

Waynetta and Nell retreated behind the blossoming fire. Waynetta took a hatchet and, with great fatigue, battered through the back of the building. They left behind their rucksacks, their beans and what little else there was of food, a novel Nell had been reading now ashes. It was a shame. The Society had translated the book for the gamesters so they could read along with the human. All they had was the hatchet as they ran for cover. There were few trees. Some pines marked old property lines, but nothing of substantial protection. There was an overturned tanker truck. There was time before the gas goes stale. The humans hid in the tanker’s shadow as the smoke of the garage spiraled into the clear sky. The Countess couldn’t look away. 

Weston descended his tree. The garage had smoldered and collapsed. He clicked his tongue in mild discontent. He rounded the structure and found footprints in the snow out back, intermingled with wood chips that hand been cut out of the back of the garage. Weston adjusted his hat and continued the hunt. Prince Olm sat easy. Drank as though he saw this every day, not once a year. She pressed him, “Is this not exciting enough for you?”

“When I’m shocked, you will know.”

Nell’s left leg had been severely burned. Much of the plastic in her snow pants had melted to her skin. Shards of wood had embedded in her flesh. By the time she collapsed in the tanker’s shade, she knew she wouldn’t be getting up. Waynetta removed her gloves and went about picking the slivers out of Nell, but the chill slowed her fingers until the color paled and blued and purpled. “No, no, no,” she bawled. Tears cut through the dirt and frost on her face. “No, no, no.” Nell became delirious. Moaning and drifting, until a moment of clarity when she screamed, “Mom!” 

Weston appeared behind them. Waynetta reached for the hatchet. She swung and embedded it in the man’s calf. Two shots rang out. Deck 18 became quiet. The screen adjusted. The readout showed: 

567*9 – 17 Days 12 Hours 23 Minutes 

567*88 – 17 Days 12 Hours 22 Minutes

Deck 18 was divided in its celebrations. The Countess was still. Just one more week. They only needed to survive one more week. The Countess was dead, too. Maybe she could watch the man from Zimbabwe until the station left Earth’s orbit. Prince Olm smiled. She knew, obviously, the prince was not shocked. 

She said, “I imagine you had bet their lives down to the minute, Prince Olm. You seem awfully pleased.”

“I am, dear Countess, but you misunderstand me. I didn’t bet at all on Waynetta and Nell. I bet on Weston.”

This was news to the entire entourage. He reveled in the pageantry. The people Prince Olm surrounded himself with were not blessed with the same luck.

He said, “I stopped in at Deck 32 when we first boarded. Placed my bets, and then camped out here. I like to think that I had grown attached to the humans, but it’s just a game in the end, isn’t it?”

“Except for the humans,” The Countess added, herself bereft of vigor. Olm sipped his wine. Over the brim of the glass, he caught The Countess’s eye, and winked. It was a ghastly confession.

She thought, he didn’t—and cut herself off at the impossibility of it all. What were the chances that the prince had fixed the game? How could one even? The Society didn’t even know which planets were dying until it was happening. Even then, how could he have manipulated Weston to find and kill Waynetta and Nell?

Olm announced, “I would like privacy with The Countess.”

Grumbling and poorer, the prince’s people shuffled from the booth and coagulated at the bar. The Countess braced herself for the coming accusation. “Please take no offense, Prince Olm, but I need to know: did you fix the game?”

“Between you, me, and the stars, Countess, you know that I did.”

“But, how is that even possible? Why would you—?”

He tut-tutted. She wanted to break her wineglass and hold the chips to his neck. “I’m going to offer you a job, now, Countess, and you’re going to accept.”

“Why would I work for you?”

“I know the trick you tried to pull to weasel into the Tendrill Banks, and I know you owe money to the shark there—” I flinched. “—and I know that this was it for you. Plus, I must say, I am a bit of a fan. The stunts you pulled with the Haymons during the peace deals? Utterly brilliant. I would prefer you among my ranks than anywhere else. I’m tired of chasing you. So, your options are either return home a hunted pauper, or come work for me.”

“You knew—you knew I would bet on Deck 18?”

“I did.”

“You were angry about the Tendrill job?”

“I’m making peace with it now, though. Also, I just happen to like you, Countess. You should consider yourself lucky.”

The Countess fell into herself. Slunk back in the gall of the golden light. She asked, “Might I have a moment to think about it, your highness?” Prince Olm of the Sheafbacks assented. He joined his people at the bar. Prince Olm cheered at the bar, holding his drink high above his head. The Countess wondered now just how many people were cheering with him. 

Weston was still on the screen, limping across a pale and lifeless expanse.


About the author: Jack Croughwell is a fiction writer from Lowell, Massachusetts. He carries a yellow pen.

And these are my socials:
Instagram: @jackfromtv



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My name is Jack L. Bryson and I'm the editor of Teleport. I studied literature at University of Montana. I live in Mountain View Ca, and my email is coffeeant1@gmail.com

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