BY Rik Hoskin
The end of civilization started with a child’s toy.
For me, it started when my sister gave my son one of those toys as a gift. William was three-and-a-half then, bumbling and curious, giggling about stuff that as grown ups we’ll never understand.
My sister, Hailey, had arrived on one of her frequent Sunday visits just before lunch. It was a sunny day but there was still that chill in the air where winter won’t quite make way for spring. William loved his Auntie Hailey. Why wouldn’t he? She didn’t have kids of her own so she spoilt him rotten every time she came over. This visit she had brought him a phase ball—the very latest thing, she said—and William couldn’t get out of her hugging arms fast enough to go play with it.
“Jane got one of these for Belle last week and she absolutely adores it,” Hailey told me as William ran across the wooden floor of our lounge, rolling the ball before him. The ball was a foot high and came up almost to William’s knee. We stood watching him play for a while as we caught up on the lives of mutual friends. Hailey was smoking again, which annoyed me—I’d quit three years ago, just after William was born, in fact, and it still required a great amount of willpower not to join Hailey as she stood on our apartment’s balcony lighting up.
I didn’t know anything about the phase balls then. They were still new—this was before they had started running the news stories, and long before things had started to fall apart. It was typical of my sister to be ahead of the curve. And I don’t blame her for what happened with William. I can’t. It’s not like it only happened to us.
Sam joined us for lunch, and she indulged William when he showed her what his fantastic Auntie Hailey had brought.
“He already has, I don’t know, fifty balls,” Sam said once William had gone back to his game. Sam had never liked Hailey. Okay, that’s not true—she didn’t dislike her, it was just that there had always been this kind of one-upmanship between them so that nothing the other did was ever going to be good enough. Hailey ignored her.
“He looks pleased with it,” Hailey said. And he did.
Our apartment was modern, which was another way of saying they didn’t bother with walls unless they had to, so we could sit at the dining table and still watch William play in the lounge. It was then that I first noticed something odd about the ball. It seemed to be disappearing when it left the floor. One moment it was there, the next it was gone, and then it was there again.
“What is that?” I asked as I watched William play.
Samantha and Hailey stared at me. In my surprise, I’d apparently butted right into some heated conversation concerning the wretched hair styles of female politicians (no, seriously). I pointed at the ball and asked again.
“Is it me or does that ball keep… disappearing?”
Hailey nodded. “That’s exactly what it does,” she said. “It’s the latest thing. A phase ball. It phases in and out of the visible spectrum, tricking the eyes that it’s disappeared.”
“Wow,” I said. I was dumbfounded.
I watched for a while as William rolled and bounced the phase ball around the lounge. Some of the time it looked like William was playing with an imaginary toy because there was nothing there, at least as far as I could see. One time he got a little close to the sideboard, and Sam reminded him to play elsewhere, but William didn’t mind. In fact, he barely glanced up from his play.
After a while, I had to look away. It was hypnotic, watching that ball appear and disappear like that, without any discernible pattern to its phases. But it was giving me a headache. I wear glasses to correct short-sightedness, and I get a migraine when I try to watch 3D films. I guess the phase ball had a similar effect. But Sam seemed to like it, which was a miracle—had to be the first present that Hailey had ever brought for William that Sam actually approved of.
* * *
William played with the phase ball pretty much non-stop after that. It was his go-to toy in the morning and it was the thing he brought to the dinner table when it was time to stop playing and eat. He even took it to bed, and I’d peek in on him during the commercial breaks and see him fast asleep, still hugging his phase ball close to his chest.
William was so focused on the phase ball that after a week Sam started to worry. “Have you seen Will play with anything other than that ball?” she asked me one night after William had gone to bed.
I shrugged. “Kids have their favorite toys,” I told her. “I used to love those little green army men, I had a whole crate of them and I’d spend hours setting them up for a toy war.”
Sam wrinkled her nose. “I guess.”
“I had a ‘blanky’ until I was six,” I added.
“You baby! That’s so sad,” Sam teased.
“I was six, not twenty-six.”
In his room, William slept on, hugging the best toy he had ever been given.
* * *
Three weeks later, Sam came back from a training course in a buoyant mood. Back then, she was something important in accounting for one of the big multinational companies that shut down when the end came.
“What are you so happy about?” I asked when she came bounding through the apartment door. It wasn’t like Sam to be happy after a training day, she usually cursed them as a waste of time and resources.
“You’ll never guess what happened,” Sam began. “We were put into teams to solve some problems—”
“Sounds ghastly,” I muttered.
Sam shot me a look before reaching into her bag. “At the end we were all given a prize. Look!”
From her bag, Sam produced a ball. It was smaller than William’s, about the size of a pool cue ball, but it had that same greyish-pink tint to it.
“What is that?” I asked. “Is that a…?”
Sam nodded, bouncing the ball on our wooden floor. We both watched in awe as the ball phased in and out of the visible spectrum, disappearing and reappearing before our eyes.
“William is going to want it,” I said.
“He can’t have it,” Sam said. “It’s my prize.” She was joking, I assumed.
* * *
Sometimes, Sam brought work home, so we’d set up a small desk in the bedroom, where she could close the door and get on with things on her laptop without being bothered. Her desk was never untidy as such, but she always seemed to have twice as many papers as the desk could comfortably house. I noticed her prize phase ball sitting atop a tower of loose papers a few days later, where she had unpacked her bag after the training day. It sat there, unobtrusive and solid enough now that no one was touching it. If you stared at it for a long time, you could kind of see it flickering a little, like a leaf catching the breeze, but it only winked out of sight if you handled it. I ignored it and got back to making the bed.
William was still enamored with his own ball, of course. It had been three weeks since Hailey had brought it, yet he remained transfixed by it, playing almost non-stop with the thing in our apartment and taking it with him whenever we went out. We didn’t mind—the ball kept him happy and he was never any trouble so long as he had it to hand.
* * *
One Thursday night, Sam got back from work with a pile of paperwork. “I have to do this for tomorrow,” she told me before shutting herself in the bedroom.
Sam skipped dinner and so William and I ate by ourselves. William, as had become normal by then, had his phase ball with him at the table and he would roll it back and forth between forkfuls of pasta never taking his eyes off it. I didn’t pay much attention—I got a headache if I watched it for too long, so I’d got used to just kind of zoning it out.
Later that evening, I checked in on Sam and asked if she wanted a snack. She was sitting at the little desk in the corner of our bedroom, staring at the smaller phase ball that she had been given at her training day the week before. Her laptop screen was dark and her bag was on the bed. The bag was open and I could see the urgent paperwork sitting inside.
“All finished?” I asked.
Sam didn’t answer at first, and I had to ask again before she murmured a response.
“You work too hard,” I said as I stood behind her, massaging her shoulders. “Call it a night. Anything you didn’t get done now will have to wait.”
“Yeah,” Sam replied, but her eyes were still locked on the phase ball as she rolled it across the only uncluttered six inches of the desk.
I went back out to the kitchen to put on the kettle and rustle up some toast.
The kettle had been boiled twenty minutes before I checked on Sam again. She was sitting at her desk just the same as before, gazing transfixed at the phase ball.
“Kettle’s boiled,” I told her.
Sam ignored me, her eyes still locked on that weird ball as it slipped in and out of the visible spectrum. I went over and took the ball from her hand, helping her out of the chair.
“Come on,” I said. “Have a hot drink and think about getting ready for bed.”
“Sure,” she muttered with a shake of her head.
She came out of the bedroom in a kind of half-asleep trance. I figured she’d been working too hard.
It wasn’t until later that I found out that she hadn’t switched on the computer that night, and that the paperwork had never left her bag.
* * *
After that, Samantha would spend a lot of time in the bedroom playing with the phase ball. She would sit at her desk or on the floor, rolling it back and forth, just watching the way it seemed to slip out of existence, as if lost between the sheets on the bed.
I tried talking to her, but she was unresponsive. One time I hid the ball while she was at work, but when she came home she turned the bedroom upside down until she found it. There was no reasoning with her. She wasn’t eating much anymore, nor sleeping. She was looking tired. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night and find her sitting at the desk, rolling her phase ball back and forth, only just visible from the light that seeped in from where we left the door ajar to listen for William.
William too was lost in his own little world, bouncing the ball that my sister had given him, rolling it and watching as it disappeared and reappeared, over and over. When I tried taking his away, he would cry, non-stop, until I gave it back.
“I want ball, daddy. I want ball.”
I can still hear the whine in his voice, even now.
* * *
One evening, I was watching the television news. I was alone, of course; Sam was in the bedroom and William was sitting under the dining table playing with his own ball. He’d figured out that I couldn’t reach him so easily there, which meant I wouldn’t try to take it away again. A reporter appeared on the television talking about the way the phase ball had conquered the toy market. They were talking about it being the number one best-seller for Christmas, which was still six months away, and how sales kept growing.
“Market analysts tell us that enough phase balls have been sold to account for one for every household in the country, and many households have two or three,” the reporter explained as, behind him, some kids in a school gymnasium bounced the strange balls in time. The kids were leaned over, kind of like hunchbacks, watching the way the balls flickered in and out of reality, visible for an instant before slipping out of sight.
“And it’s not just here. The toy is the top seller right across the globe. From Paris to Peking, London to Luxembourg, the phase ball has conquered the toy market and it seems its fans can’t get enough.” Footage of people playing phase ball outside various international landmarks accompanied this statement, before the camera cut back to the school gym where those kids were still bouncing their balls.
The reporter made it sound like fun, but as I watched those kids, bent over themselves as if they all had osteoporosis, I felt unnerved. It was eerie, the way they had become transfixed.
The reporter signed off, and I sat there thinking about Hailey, and how she had always been ahead of the trends.
* * *
The day after the news report, Samantha didn’t go into work. Instead, she sat at her desk rolling her phase ball to and fro, and when I spoke to her she ignored me, swatting me away the way she’d swat a fly.
William too was playing with his phase ball. He hadn’t stopped playing with it since he’d first got it six weeks ago.
I knew about addiction. I’d been a smoker for eight years and quitting had been the hardest thing I’d ever put myself through. It was still hard sometimes: when the weather turned cold; when I drank. My wife and my little man had become obsessed with their phase balls, and they fed that addiction by playing with them all day long, to the exclusion of everything else.
And it wasn’t just them. Reports were surfacing in the news about people dying in their homes because they hadn’t eaten in weeks. A bus crashed in the city and it emerged that the driver hadn’t slept in a month because he’d spent his nights playing with his kid’s phase ball. At first these reports were small, nothing more than filler, and sometimes the phase ball connection wasn’t even mentioned. Why would it be? The things were so common it would have been like stating, “this person had a watch,” and trying to make that sound like it had caused their death.
But medical professionals were starting to notice the connection, and they were getting worried. Not all of them, of course—at least a third of them were so addicted to their own phase ball that they had stopped coming in to work, and I once heard somewhere that 95 percent of all medical professionals had a phase ball they used to relieve stress. The things were addictive.
* * *
I don’t know when society really fell apart. It wasn’t like in the movies, it was more gradual than that. A train wouldn’t arrive, or a delivery got missed at the supermarket, those kinds of things. Then stores started to close down, or just stopped opening because the staff were too busy playing phase ball at home, and the customers weren’t coming anymore. Even toy stores, which was ironic given the upswing in trade that the phase ball had brought them. And it wasn’t just here—all over the world, cities were grinding to a halt, street by street, office block by office block, person by person.
I’d lost my wife by then. Her hair was matted and unwashed, and she smelled of body odor, but she didn’t care. She just sat playing with the ball. She wouldn’t eat unless I forced her, and she never spoke; I don’t think she remembered how.
William had become so withdrawn that he barely interacted with us. As with Sam, I fed him, but we didn’t communicate. He had been a bright boy six months ago, perennially happy and full of energy. Now he barely moved, just sat rolling his phase ball against the wall so that it would roll back, winking in and out of sight. I couldn’t take it away. When I did, he’d just shut down, staring into space. At least with the ball he had something to do, something to occupy his mind. Still, I felt like I’d failed him. Because I had.
* * *
One night I awoke to the smell of burning. Sam was sitting at her desk, rolling the phase ball back and forth the way she always did now. I ignored her and went to the window, opening the blinds.
There was a fire out there, blocks away, glowing like someone had boxed sunset. It burned in silence, no traffic, no sirens, no shouting.
I called the emergency services. It rang for maybe six minutes before someone eventually picked up. “I need to report a fire,” I said, still watching through the bedroom window.
At the other end of the line, no one said anything. I could hear breathing, so I knew they were there. And I could hear something else too, the familiar sound of bouncing, a phase ball striking a desk.
I tried again but the phone just rang and rang so I hung up, went back to bed and tried to sleep.
The next day, fires burned throughout the city, sending black plumes of smoke into the sky. I watched from the communal balcony of my apartment block, trying to judge if they were getting closer. I was the only one who watched from there. I guess everyone else had shut themselves inside to play ball.
I could see a few people moving about in the streets; not many, just lone wanderers making their way through the city, getting away from the flames. One man had a phase ball the size of a basketball which he bounced along the sidewalk as he walked past the burning store on the corner of our street. He didn’t look up.
* * *
My eyesight spared me. My terrible, sit-at-the-front-of-class-and-get-picked-on eyesight. I say spared, I don’t say saved. I’d never say saved. I’m not saved.
My eyesight forced me to watch my wife and my boy die, until I couldn’t bear to watch it anymore. There was hardly any food by then, the stores had been stripped and no more deliveries ever came, but even if there had been food neither Sam nor William could be enticed to eat. They remained transfixed by those balls as they rolled and bounced in their hands. Roll and bounce, roll and bounce.
It broke my heart. I had to leave them in the end, but I knew that, in any practical sense, they had already left me a long time before. Their heads were locked somewhere in those phases between the visible, just before the curtain parts, anticipating the reveal.
I heard a theory that the phase balls had come to Earth from somewhere else, an alien virus that spread through whatever means it found on a host planet, replicating over and over. With us, it found commercialism, capitalism, product acquisition, and it had spread that way, taking over, creating an all-consuming fascination with it that could never be satiated. It tickled the eyes with its one trick, a trick that never became stale. Maybe there were other ways. Maybe in a few years it will come again in another form, one we’re all susceptible to. Because they say a virus doesn’t kill every host—it always leaves some so that it can spread again.
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Rik Hoskin is a multi-award winning writer of novels, graphic novels, video games and animation. He’s written comics for Star Wars, Superman, Doctor Who and various other properties. He won the Dragon Award for Best Graphic Novel 2018 for White Sand (with Brandon Sanderson), which also made the New York Times Bestseller list, and the Indie Volt for Best Graphic Novel 2021 for the crowdfunded Only Death Can Save Us. He’s written SF novels under his own name and as “James Axler”. His most recent novel was Bystander 27, published by Angry Robot. He’s also written video games, including as lead writer, and has
written animation for BBC television in the UK.
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