The Life Cycles of Goldfish
by Jamie Lackey
Read by Stuart Jaffe
Listen to the audio version
The light in the fish tank started flickering. I have enough food to last one person
centuries, thousands of lightbulbs for every other fixture in the shelter, and more than enough
fish food to feed them for the rest of my life. But I don't have another light for the fish tank.
Will they die if it goes out?
Will they leave me completely alone?
I've rigged up three desk lamps, clipped to the stand and pointed at the tank from various
angles. I alternate them and the normal light, and the fish don't seem to notice a difference.
It's a huge relief.
I watch them swim, silver and orange scales flashing in the new angles of light. They're
alive. They're real.
I watch them for a long time.
The days blur together. I wake up, I exercise, I shower. I'm grateful that I don't have to
worry about losing power or running out of water. I'm grateful that I still have hot water, fluffy
towels, toilet paper. I really am.
After my shower, I usually read. I'm trying to teach myself how to play the flute, because I
found one in storage. It's something to do, anyway. I never thought I'd get tired of reading.
Sometimes I watch movies, but that's harder. It means actually seeing other people. Complete,
unbroken other people. Not like the ruins of humanity that shuffle past the observation cameras.
I don't look at the cameras, if I can help it.
One of the fish died. And they will all die, eventually. So now, I'm trying to figure out
how to encourage them to breed. How do I even tell if I have both boy and girl fish?
There was a system alert this morning. The cameras have detected suspicious activity.
That means I have to look at the footage. Really wishing someone had thought to pack some
There's someone up there. He's clearly infected. Shambling around and moaning, but he's
been hanging around the entrance to the compound for a full day. They usually keep moving,
looking for things to destroy.
And they usually move in packs.
Are they evolving? Or maybe starting to get better?
I should know better than to hope. But still.
I think that it might be Terry.
If it is Terry, would his palm still open the outer door? As far as I can tell, he hasn't tried.
He shouldn't be able to think to try it, the infection destroys their minds. That's not something
you get better from, is it?
I tried to access the security protocols to remove Terry's access, just in case. Actually, I
was hoping to remove all access but mine. But I'm not authorized to do that, apparently.
Terry's still out there. I've been having trouble sleeping. What if he randomly stumbles
and his hand ends up on the door panel? Who designed this idiotic security system anyway? We
knew the virus destroyed cognitive function, why not have a password or numeric sequence to
enter on a keypad? Then no brain-dead rage monster would be able to just stumble into
something and open it.
On the bright side, I'm pretty sure that I do have both boy and girl fish. I've been reading
up on fish anatomy and how to breed fish in captivity. It's not a fast process, but I've got nothing
As long as Terry doesn't get in here and rip me to pieces, anyway.
Terry probably wouldn't be able to rip me to pieces by himself. It was a large group that
Anyway, I might be able to take Terry if he's alone. The infection does increase overall
muscle strength, but I've been really studious about exercise, and Terry always was a bit of a
He is still there. I'm barricading the damn door. There are piles and piles of heavy
supplies that I'm never going to need. I'm going to fill the whole hallway with crates of dried
beans. Let's see Terry get at me through that.
Crates of dried beans are really heavy. It's a good thing I'm in decent shape.
Having a project was nice, so I've decided to reorganize the entire bunker. I found a label
maker. I moved myself to the big room right next to the kitchen. I mean, why not? It has a full-sized bed! I moved the exercise equipment into the room with my fish, so I can watch them while
I jog. I reorganized the kitchen and labeled where everything goes, all nice and neat.
And there are a whole lot of supplies between me and the outside.
All the physical exertion has helped me sleep, too.
Terry is still out there. But I'm getting used to it.
My fish have laid eggs!
I have baby fish! They're so tiny! I've never seen anything so beautiful in my life. I
watched them all morning, and I can't stop grinning.
If I could go outside, I'd get more fish tanks. Since I can't, I raided the labs and made
pretty much any clear container that I could find into a fish tank. This way, if anything happens to
one fish community, the others are isolated and safe.
I've been here for exactly two years, today. I fired up the radio, for old time's sake. It's all
just static, now.
I talked to the emptiness for a while, just in case there was somebody out there, listening.
I can't really be the only survivor.
There are two of them, now. Terry has a friend. I don't recognize this one, but it doesn't
really have much of a face left. It could be pretty much anybody.
Now there are eight of them, milling about, not moving on. But they can't get in. I'm safe.
My fish are safe.
I'm getting pretty good at the flute.
It'd been a while since I checked in on Terry and his pals. They're still up there. Doing
nothing. As far as I can tell, they don't eat, don't drink, don't sleep. Just shamble back and forth or
stand about swaying slightly. At first, we all assumed that they ate brains or human flesh, but that
doesn't really seem to be the case. I've never seen one ingest anything at all. There's nothing up
there to smash or destroy--can they have smashed everything that is smashable? Are they just
bored and wandering around like tumbleweed? Why have those specific ones washed up here?
How in the world are their bodies still going? You'd think they'd, I dunno, start to
decompose or something by now.
I watched a movie today. It'd been a long time since I saw an actual human face, aside
from my own reflection, and I usually only see that in the fish tank. I'd sort of gotten used to
Terry, I guess, because the movie people all seemed too perfect to be real.
Then I started crying, and now I can't stop. I'm going to dig into the chocolate supply.
They're gone. After over 200 days of just standing about, they've wandered off. What
were they waiting for?
I'll drive myself nuts trying to read some sort of meaning into it.
There hasn't been sign of movement outside for at least fifty days. Before that, any that
came within sight were all heading in the same direction. Like a migration.
Sometimes, I think about going out there. About seeing where they all went, or just seeing
the sky and feeling the sun on my skin. But something might happen to me. There might be a
group of stragglers. And my fish need me.
I just spent most of a day sitting in the middle of a circle of fish tanks, watching my fish
swim. It was very soothing.
Terry came back. Just Terry, alone again. Does he know that I'm here? He hasn't changed
at all. How is that possible?
Curiosity is dangerous.
Dangerous and stupid.
I've been down here by myself for over three years. I'm incredibly lonely and intensely
bored. There must be so much going on up there that I can't see.
What is Terry up to?
I miss the sun. And the snow. And the sound of rain. And the stars.
We never planned to stay down here forever. We were going to wait out the danger and
then go up and rebuild.
I don't think the danger is ever going to pass.
I don't want to be trapped down here forever.
It's my birthday. I made myself a cake and gave my fish extra food. I watched them swim
and listened to the static on the radio and realized that if I don't do something every day of the
rest of my life will be exactly the same.
I've set up two habitats for my fish in a couple of the big water storage tanks. I've
programmed a feeding schedule and figured out a way to filter the water and keep the
temperature regulated. This way, they'll be safe. Even if I die, they'll be okay.
Individually, my lifespan is much longer than theirs. But now their community, at least,
should be able to outlive me.
I moved all of the supplies out of the hallway. I packed food and water, clean clothes, two
towels, and my flute.
I know this is a bad idea. I know it. But I need to know what's going on out there. And
there's only one way to find out.
Time to go. Terry's waiting.