“Robotics, yes” reeled off Johann.
This was leading to a well-rehearsed answer to the what-is-it-you-do-anyway kind of question, but not one he was tired of answering. As always, there was no air about his voice and certainly not that of a smug and self-satisfied man. Johann loved what he did and tried to deliver the familiar discourse in a way that would infect any listener with the self-same satisfaction and zeal that he had for his job.
“Advanced movement systems and artificial intelligence. Basically, trying to make people.”
Amongst the ring of party guests listening to Johann, was a sly-looking man with a mischievous grin. This was a life-long friend and regular play-antagoniser of Johann's, Dan. From the corner of his vision, Johann detected that very grin and knew what it meant. Friends do this kind of thing.
Dan opened his mouth.
“Trying to play God and make yourself a new wife?”
Johann laughed with Dan at this. “But Dan, I only just got a real wife. A real one.”
Eyes were directed via Johann's gesturing hand across the main room of the studio apartment. The crowd at this party seemed to part like the Red Sea to reveal Anne at the other side, delicately sipping from a tall glass of Italian Merlot and listening to a friend's amusing anecdote.
To Johann, time slowed to a stop as Anne's eyes met his. Although separated by a few metres of laminate flooring and slightly-merry friends-and-acquaintences, Johann felt himself drawn in by Anne's deep hazel-coloured eyes. He hadn't had time to savour them since he was ensnared by their rapturous contemplation whilst uttering the words “I do” a few scant hours prior, and there was little time to savour it right now. The fall of silence upon the room shook him to his senses, and he finished his thought aloud, now for the entire room to hear.
“And how lovely she is.”
This phrase serving as a cue, the unintelligible sound of the crowd idly chatting amongst themselves eased back in an enveloped the room. This left only the possibility of listening to the talk of the nearest group, but there wasn't a single person who wasn't completely fine with this arrangement. For some, hitherto-separated friends came together and caught up with events. For others, plans were made for the following day. Or week.
Anne shared aspirations with her friends, of a job she had her eye on. As a copy writer for a news anchor on a regional news programme, her sights were firmly set on the news-reading itself. Always a friendly face, Anne liked to deliver everyday things like mild gossip and hearsay with a smile that made even the hardest of concepts easy to digest. Not that she succumbed to idle small-talk about other people if she could help it, but sometimes you're friends are the Romans and you have to do as those in Rome do. Sometimes. She'd rather her presentable appearance bless the masses with facts and figures delivered cheerfully. A humble, but noble goal.
Dan stood aside from the groups Johann tended to address. Dan was between jobs, taking whatever he could to back up his attempts to work the stand-up comedy circuit. He felt that his job in any social situation was to provide sarcasm, one-liners, quips, and to be a comic foil to straight-man Johann. All delivered whilst coolly holding a glass of whisky from which he had the odd snappy swig from as he leaned against the nearest solid structure. Or Johann himself.
Darkness had drawn in from the sky, and lights were on in the apartment studio. Johann had finished describing to fair-weather friends the laymanese for what he did, and started upon the buffet. He'd waited politely for activity to finish on the food amongst the guests, so that everybody had had their fill and he wasn't potentially taking from anyone else's plate. This was his lot in life, he said to himself – though not in a defeatist manner. Johann would happily go last on any given endeavour if it meant everyone else, even those part-time friends who seemed uninterested in his life until the wedding, weren't going without.
Sausage rolls, cheese sandwiches and a slice of carrot cake. And another orange juice, for alcohol was off the menu. Should anyone need driving anywhere tonight, Johann was the guy.
Some of the early-leavers were leaving, and Johann devoured his scavenged scraps with gusto. His ears were taking in a re-telling of that one heckle Dan still laughs about, and eyes were scanning the slowly-dispersing crowd. One more glance of Anne's slender frame would be the perfect complement to the delicious cheese sandwich he'd started. Anne was nowhere to be seen, and the balcony door was ajar. A pleasant breeze snuck into the room, and Johann crept politely through it whilst being halfway into a cheese sandwich.
Anne was at the balcony, still cradling an empty wine glass. Her eyes were fixated on the lower sky in the distance, and Johann's were fixed upon her. As the last fifth of his sandwich filled his mouth, words attempted to escape and rest in Anne's ears.
“S'p?” were the sounds that finally emerged free and smudged themselves into Anne's consciousness enough to wake her from a stupor. She turned and smiled at Johann's attempt to communicate with a food-stuffed mouth. A tear was rolling down her right cheek, catching light from the stars, and prompted a forced gulp from Johann as he tried to vacate his mouth for clearer speech.
“Is everything okay?” he enquired.
Anne pointed to the sky which held her gaze before, and said to Johann “someone else is celebrating tonight as well. And it's beautiful.”
Sure enough, there were coloured lights in the sky. Distant conflagrations in the inky night punctuated the serenity of the balcony.
“What kind of fireworks do you suppose they are?” asked Anne as she wrapped an arm around Johann's shoulder. They watched as streaks came down from the sky and exploded.
“They're kinda... upside-down.”
Anne's words were slightly-muted to Johann, as his eyes narrowed and his neck tightened.
Johann felt cold. The realisation that these were not fireworks hit with a gut-punch that made him feel ill. And held tight, threatening to evacuate every breath in his body. And yet, his first thought was not to panic.
“Get everyone to the basement. Now.”
Anne didn't hesitate, or question. Johann was curt, very unlike his gentle nature. His coldness suggested something rather serious. She didn't even think about it, but simply complied with his order. People were herded to the basement, although some thought this a game. Dan helped, and Johann hurriedly filled a camping backpack with tins of food, and bottles of water. There was a slight rumbling in the distance, getting nearer. He hurried down the narrow stairs with as much as his shoulders would bear, the ceiling seemingly loosening with the impending cacophony sounding directly overhead now.
Dust fell from the ceiling of the basement as he arrived. The walls shook with each audible boom, making a crescendo that drowned out the panicked squeals of the guests who were huddled in the dusty brick room they hid in. Dan was comforting a worry-stricken Anne in the corner, as Johann approached with his supplies. Anne's eyes lit up to see Johann, and the room quaked like the rolling kettle-drum of a gigantic orchestra; a tempestuous timpani that seemed to cause the ceiling to fall and the lights to die.
And it did. There was black.