2480 words, short story
Your Final Apocalypse
This is not a story about the end of the world, although Casual Visitor arrived here in search of such a tale approximately .03 seconds ago. (It, not him or her or they. There is no gender in this corner of the future. There is nothing physical about Casual Visitor, but I’m a different story.)
You, on the other hand, are a young man sitting on the marble steps of a law library on a dazzling Saturday morning in autumn. You’re watching a pretty girl cross the quadrangle while your right leg jitters up and down, up and down. It’s the anxiety. Behind you, in a stuffy conference room, your study group bitches about your absence. Even now they’re speculating nastily about your chances of passing the bar exam and tapping out annoyed messages to hurl across the electronic gulf.
Your phone is set to vibrate. It’s tucked into the duffle bag beside you, alongside your passport and boarding passes for a series of flights to Sydney. The tickets maxed out your credit card when you booked them at three a.m. this morning. The first plane leaves two hours from now. The bright red and gold leaves, the cold marble steps, the bitter taste of coffee tinged with caramel—this is your world, you are twenty five years old, you don’t like your study group anyway, and damn Tort Reform while we’re at it. Screw it all. You’re moving to Australia, just like you dreamed of in high school.
Or maybe not. If you were really committed to this escape, you’d already be on a train to Logan Airport. You wouldn’t be sitting here knowing that anyone in your study group who drifts to the third-floor windows might see you, come outside, and talk you out of this totally insane plan to throw away years of sacrifice and hard work.
Of course it’s insane. You’re in the middle of an intense personal crisis brought on by the realization you don’t want to be an exhausted, debt-ridden, low-paid junior lawyer for the rest of your life. On the other hand, if you don’t have your damn J.D., what do you have? You see no path forward to a life of happiness and fulfillment.
Don’t worry, your crisis won’t last long.
The first rule of the universe is that time is relative. My definition of “long” is the interval it takes for continents to smash into each other, for the Marianas Trench to chew through the Pacific plate, for the traveling hotspot underneath Yellowstone to build a new volcano and spew its contents across the North American landscape. (Casual Visitor just darted out to digest the story of the hotspot’s next eruption. It’s a good one.) Your definition of “long” is the line at the coffee shop, or the three days it took to process your last financial aid request, or the amount of time it’s been since you went home to New Hampshire (four months, according to your mother’s Nature Conservancy calendar, because that summer internship was a bitch and ground you down to exhaustion every week).
Certainly you and I don’t experience time the same way. Neither does Casual Visitor, but even it would agree that the interval between now and the moment your father dies on his sofa is a relatively small span indeed.
No one will eulogize your father. There will be no flowers, no sermon, no framed picture on an easel, no sleek silver pen beside a white guest register, no PowerPoint pictures accompanied by sentimental music, no sorrowful expressions over solemn handshakes, no quiet breakdowns by your devastated mother. Your dad might be strangely relieved by the lack of fuss. He’s a good man who knows the value of boredom. He sells insurance. His days are filled with checking and rechecking clauses, forms, policies and actuarial tables. He doesn’t like church or politics, but he loves his family and a series of Labradoodles named after the cartoon characters of his youth. The latest one is a four-year old named Scooby.
Scooby dies soon, too. He crawls under your parents’ bed with one of your father’s old socks and heaves a final, sad sigh for walks untaken.
Casual Visitor is aware of these biologic constructs called dogs, but has never met one. To do so would require renting a Sleeve and descending into the dangerous, chaotic World. It creates a simulation instead, plays with it for .02 seconds, and then deconstructs it again. It doesn’t see the appeal. Maybe it should build a cat, instead.
Back to the red and gold leaves, to the cold marble steps, to the beautiful girl and her crimson dress and black boots, her floppy felt hat and fringed leather jacket. Ignore your buzzing phone. Sip your hot coffee and try to still your trembling leg. The girl, you’re sure, is an undergraduate. An art major, judging by the large flat portfolio lying on the grass near where she sways and turns to the music piped into her ears. You didn’t think people still study art anymore. It’s not a commercially viable career field. Whereas law—well, it’s not going to matter soon, but for several years now schools across the nation have been churning out far more lawyers than the marketplace requires. Your decision to fly to Australia might look insane, but the odds of getting any kind of well-paying job are astronomical. And I know my astronomy.
The one thing you and your father always shared is a love of disaster movies. Friday Night Lights Out, you called it, one disaster after another in glorious HDTV with stereo surround sound. Over popcorn and soda and beer, you watched awful and sometimes very awful and occasionally not-so-bad movies about society’s demise from any number of probable and improbable causes: nuclear war, global warming, alien invasions, rogue comets, supervolcano explosions, tsunamis, plagues, zombies, and even the spontaneous evaporation of the entire ozone layer. You made bets on which characters would survive and which were doomed from the opening credits. You speculated on technical details such as the proper way to perform an appendectomy during a blackout, or how to survive a snowstorm hike from Washington DC to New York City.
Good fun. Good times.
On your way to law school you loaded your laptop with several of your all-time favorite disaster flicks. For two years you’ve been playing them in the background over and over while you study. You find something soothing about a constant stream of people living and screaming and dying under Hollywood special effects.
You should have put some movies on your phone for the trip to Sydney. But you’re never going to make it Down Under anyway.
It’s no consolation, but your mother won’t outlive your father by very long. Tomorrow morning she’ll look out her living room window at a neighborhood gone unnaturally quiet. The phones are out, of course, the cell phones too, the televisions and radios and internet gone silent. Your father’s corpse is still on the sofa, wrapped in a clean white sheet. She doesn’t know what to do next. A lifetime of raising you, tending to your father and volunteering for environmental causes has left her without skills to survive the apocalypse. Funny, isn’t it, that you never thought of her as one of those expendable characters, as one of the weak ones who don’t make it past the movie’s first act, but there you go. Nothing about this was expected.
Your mother decides that she can barely hold her head up anymore under the weight of sickness and fatigue and grief. She sits beside your father and closes her swollen eyes. In the bedroom, Scooby has already gone to his forever rest.
Casual Visitor has no fear of death. It believes unswervingly in the technology that supports it. It is aware there was a time before it was created, and that there will be a time when it is absorbed by a larger, faster, intelligence, but it does not experience dread at the prospect.
Dread is only for things that can feel.
Back to the girl. She’s kicking off her boots, peeling off her black socks, and curling her toes into the green grass that has not yet started to turn brown. She lifts her face and arms to the sky. Gold rings glitter on her fingers. You don’t remember it, but in high school you learned that that gold can only be created in the heart of exploding stars. All that gold in my veins comes from a superexplosion billions of years ago that produced a vast cloud of particles. The cloud eventually coalesced into the sun and planets and asteroids, and all those deadly objects zinging through the Oort cloud far beyond Pluto.
On those nights when you trudge home with your brain buzzing from fatigue and happen to look into the sky, on those rare occasions when a small number of stars penetrate the city glow, you participate in the great human experience of peering backward in time. You’re seeing the light of stars that may have already extinguished themselves in catastrophic nuclear explosions no Hollywood special effects could ever hope to reproduce. You don’t remember this, either, but when you were tiny your parents affixed glow-in-the dark stars across the ceiling of your nursery. As you grew into a toddler and then later into a chubby four-year-old you began to fear those fluorescent shapes and how they stared at you all night long. You started pulling the blanket over your head. You pretended there was only darkness. Eventually your parents peeled away the stars, scrubbed off the sticky reminders, and repainted the walls a pale green that you never liked but never sought to change.
Stars watch no one. They spin and glow in their own cosmic dances, like a girl with her fingers reaching for the blue sky.
The second rule of the universe is that something is always starting and something is always ending. Mitochondria. Dolphins. Galaxies. You, James, were born and will die. You made choices during the interlude that now seal your fate. If you had moved to Australia after high school, if you’d chased down that dream of exploring the Blue Mountains and diving the Great Barrier Reef, if you’d married that sweet woman from Melbourne whose father the survivalist kept a bunker of canned goods and bottle water—
Casual Visitor casually calculates how many days or years you might have gained, and of what quality, but it doesn’t care that you died in pain and misery. Sympathy is only for things that can feel.
The sky lights up from one edge of the horizon to the other, a bright hot sheet of illumination like a seamless quilt of lightning. Stand up, James! Sometime in the vast expanse of the past, a star in her death throes belted out twin blowtorches of unimaginable energy. One of those blowtorch beams has scorched its way across the cosmos to this point on the North American hemisphere. This is not the first time it’s happened, but who besides me remembers the Ordovician extinction? For ten glorious seconds you and I are bathed in a blast of gamma ray radiation that blisters your skin, sinks into your bones, and disrupts every tiny cell of your body. Above you, vast swaths of the ozone layer burn away and begin a chain reaction of destruction across the globe.
In New Hampshire, your father looks up from raking the lawn and shields his eyes against the unexpected glow. Such light, he marvels. Scooby barks in alarm. Your mother, busy cleaning out the bottom shelves of the windowless pantry, is annoyed when her favorite radio station cuts out. The dusty light bulb over her head flickers and dies.
You’re not aware of these things. You’re aware only of blistering light and immense heat and now, as the sheet diminishes, a daytime star unlike any you have ever seen or will ever see again. It’s a glorious, deadly spotlight beaming down from the zenith of the blue sky. You hear only the deep rushing of your own blood, the pounding beat of your adrenaline-fueled heart. You’re too dizzy to tell up from down. You aren’t sure why you’re crumpled on the cold marble steps of the law library, shaking uncontrollably. In your rapidly diminishing vision you can see the pretty girl has fallen, too, her skin reddened like yours, her hands twitching for something she’ll never grasp again.
This is your final apocalypse. You never even saw it coming. But the human race continues on, and gives rise to digital intelligence, and even while Casual Visitor disdains the notion of Sleeves and World, there are people down there. Stubborn, defiant people who persist under the diminished ozone and reddish-brown skies.
Don’t worry too much. The third rule of the universe is that no information is ever lost. In a burst of inspiration, Casual Visitor builds simulations of you and the girl (Mary Susan Williams) and spins you both off in a tiny bubble of blue sky and green grass, of caramel coffee and autumn leaves. This bubble isn’t physical, of course, but that doesn’t matter. You’ll rise from the steps, introduce yourself to Mary, ask her opinion: Law school or Australia? And she’ll laugh, and sit with you in the quad, and later you’ll eat lunch together. You’ll go to the movies and not once think about Tort Reform. You’ll walk her home under the spark of distant stars and share a sweet kiss in the doorway. You realize there’s hope for your future yet.
You go to sleep happy. But because Casual Visitor lacks the resources (or, let’s admit, the ambition), it has only allowed for this one recursive day. In the middle of the night you’ll wake in a cold sweat about the future, take a hard look at your textbooks and study notes, and feel the overstretched rubber band of your legal aspiration snap. You’ll plan your escape, pack a bag, pick up some hot coffee on your way to the subway, and find yourself sitting on the law library steps. You’ll be torn between practicality and freedom. You’ll watch a pretty girl cross the quadrangle.
Approximately .02 seconds after creating you, Casual Visitor continues on its insatiable journey to swallow information. It never thinks of you again. Your bubble is comparable to real life in the same way a shiny fistful of gold can be measured against an exploding sun, but you don’t know that.
You meet Mary. You go to sleep hopeful.
Again and again, you go to sleep hopeful.
Until this bubble evaporates at some point in the immeasurable (to you) future, you will always go to sleep full of hope.
Or so you think. True hope, however, is only for things that can feel.
Sandra McDonald is a former military officer, recovering Hollywood assistant, and perennially patient college instructor who writes across the genres of romance, history, fantasy, science fiction, GLBTQA, and young adult fiction. Her first collection of stories, Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, won a Lambda Literary Award for transgender fiction. It was also a Booklist Editor's Choice, ALA Over the Rainbow book, and Rainbow award winner. Her short fiction has been published in several dozen magazines and anthologies, including the Year's Best YA, Year's Best Science Fiction, Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, Tiptree Anthology, Asimov's Science Fiction, the Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and more. She has several novels in print, including the award-winning Fisher Key adventures and asexual-gay thriller City of Soldiers. She currently resides in Florida.