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“Let me guess. You’re here for the big one.”
“Isn’t everyone.” I stir the cream into my coffee, watching it turn the color of the man’s eyes.
“Not everyone. Some people live here you know.” I couldn’t tell if the offense in his voice was fake or not. I took a big sip of my coffee; it scalded my tongue and throat as it went down but I didn’t care. It woke me up.
I’d been on a bus and later a plane since that morning. It had taken a stroke of luck to even get a ticket; everyone was desperate to get up north. It was true that the whole world round would have the opportunity to see the aurora tonight, but up north in places like Alaska it was supposed to be the most remarkable
“One last trip before the end?” he asks me teasingly. I start to get self-conscious; I don’t trust people who talk to me for longer than they need to, and I definitely don’t trust people who try to make conversation. What can I say; it’s in my nature.
“Don’t be stupid,” I respond, trying to sound offensive. Maybe if I make him upset he’ll leave me alone. “Solar flares don’t cause the end of the world.”
“There’s never been one like this before.”
“How do you know? Have you documented the history of Earth from beginning to end?
You can’t say that for sure.” I’m actually surprised at how hostile I sound; the guy backs off.
“I just meant – not documented – what’s your problem – I’m just tryin’ tah…”
“I’m not a talker,” I inform him with an almost-apologetic shrug and find a seat as far away from the fireplace as I can. Perhaps I’m delusional but I’m convinced that if I freeze my butt off in Alaska I’ll be more forgiving to the heat once I go back to California.
I almost went to Maine but the temptation could have been too much. Maine is small; it’d be one thing if they lived in Texas but in Maine I can count the miles between us. I could feel them, practically calling me to them. I am weak. In Alaska it’s just me. There’s an ocean and a country between me and them. My family.
I don’t want to talk to anyone. I just want to sit in the snow buried in a coat and watch the sky dissolve into a watercolor. Everyone here in the lodge seems to think we’re bound by some sort of companionship. We’re all here for the same reason, to see the aurora, but it should be more like going to see a movie. Nobody talks to strangers in a movie theater, except for maybe a few weirdos. Going to see the aurora should be no different. We all want to be alone with our thoughts.
They say the people who stare into the aurora at the poles will find the meaning of their life. As if the sun is shooting some epiphanies at us that turn the sky different colors. I don’t believe that cr*p. I just think it’s going to be beautiful, and lord knows we need more beauty in this world.
Then there’s the camp that is convinced the flares are going to kill us, which is rubbish. The lights are going to go out, the hospitals will slow, people should try to hunker down and not get hurt for a few days. A couple people will die who would have been spared otherwise. But it’s not like the radiation is enough to kill us. It’s not like we’re going to fall into panic. We’re prepared and ready to make the best of it. We’re human.
I am not optimistic, but in this field I am sure. All of us are going to die, just not at the same time. The world will end someday, but not in our lifetime. The sun will die and swallow the earth, the universe will one day be a dark and empty place, but I shall die first. We have time and will always have time. I do not think any human being will witness the grand emptiness of the universe and I hope that no human being will have to know they are the last. We should think of it as great power; the world cannot die until we do.
I know as well that the world will not end in one moment. The world is defined too loosely; it can be the universe or a race; a galaxy or a person. A billion and one worlds have ended, worlds we cannot imagine and worlds we can. I do firmly believe that each and every one of us sees things slightly differently and so we all, so to speak, live in different worlds. So every time someone dies, a world ends. When you think of it this way, wars and genocide and slaughter, they are book burnings where every volume is one of a kind.
I stare out of the window until my coffee is all drunk up. I do not notice the taste, which explains why I am not bothered. I cannot stand the foul flavor; I drink coffee in times of great seriousness because it forces me to focus on the task at hand, else I realize the bitterness of my drink.
When all that is left are the dredges, I rise from my chair and move to a door. My coat is insubstantial, made for rainy weather in California, and not winters in the world that must have inspired Dante as he wrote of the cold circle of h*ll. Certainly it is inspiring; I for one am inspired to go out further, to taste the cold and suffering of ice and snow. I love the cold because I hate it, because nothing is better than knowing you are strong enough to bear it.
I have never seen the stars like this. They fill the sky and reflect off the perfect whiteness of the snow. For a moment I forget it is night because the world almost seems as bright as day. Which is when I realize, the source of this light is neither the stars nor snow. Something is glowing off towards the horizon. I run towards it, nearly falling, the water soaking into my shoes and through the denim of my jeans. But I am desperate to find the source, as its light nearly blinds me and calls to me. I run and fall and run until I see it.
If you could search her memory, you would find the fall of empires, revolutions, and mighty wars. You would find countries collapse, the beginnings of poverty, the first days of plague. You would find everything from the battlefields of the Persian Wars to the trenches and tanks of twentieth century battles. All existed, in vivid detail lacking from even the finest history book, in her consciousness. She could recall, with a moment’s thought, every victory and defeat. For generations, it was her pet project, ever since she had been sent by her people out into the stars to find life. Countless of her aged bodies had died and been ejected into the cold of space, her mind passed on to the new forms her ship grew in its incubator, until at last she had reached the planet it’s people had called by so many names until now they had settled on Earth. She had been astounded by the violence, perplexed by their needs and desires. She had sent back to her people the accounts of the men and women who lived and died, who worshipped invisible creators and killed to live.
At first, she appeared to the people who called themselves human in her true form. To them, she seemed monstrous and horrid. They were frightened, and though she worked to design her new bodies to resemble theirs, it took many generations. In some places, she was fought and feared, in others, she was worshipped. Eventually, she was able to mimic the human form, but often there were flaws. One body had a head resembling a mighty eagle; another had twice the average number of arms. At first, she appeared to the humans as a man, but found it difficult to copy their often warlike ways. After only a few generations, she had designed a new body in the form of a woman.
Every few years, her people sent her the news, letters from her friends and her family, and asked her a single question. Did these humans pose a threat? They were nowhere near interstellar travel yet, but more than that she had a fondness for the humans. They were artistic, philosophical, inventive. If only they could discard their warlike nature, they could become a great race and useful ally. So each time, she told them no.
She continued to answer in the negative until one day, thousands of years after her initial arrival, one man wished to end a war. With little more than a nod of his head, a terrible capsule was dropped on a city on the other side of the world. The inhabitants of the city turned to dust and shadows, lives were ruined, destruction was wreaked on innocents. The people of earth called it an atomic bomb, and even they realized the atrocity they created and lived in fear. The next time her people asked, she was forced to answer yes and she described to them the atrocity they had created.
Her people were aghast. They could not understand; for the first time in their centuries of life they were frightened. They were told stories of the terrible monsters of the stars, and devised ways of protecting themselves when the inevitable invasion came for them. Thousands of plans were proposed in councils; things such as underground bunkers, a way to mask signals emitting from the planet, a way of making their entire star system disappear.
The news stories came to her with regularity. She communicated with her friends and family back home; they told her the stories of how arguments were breaking out and fear was blossoming. Then one proposed an idea. They would send satellites to orbit their planet; whenever unfamiliar spacecraft came within a certain radius, they would send out a radio signal that would shut down the systems and the craft would float, useless, in space. And what would happen to the people inside, the people asked. He explained, as best their language accommodated him, they would die. Their life would end.
The people in his assembly were appalled. For centuries they had lived a pacifistic life and now their way was threatened. Outcry occurred, which turned into riots, and finally the citizen who made the suggestion lay dying. Death had been unknown in their world for thousands of years. They didn’t know what to do. Afraid that the members of the assembly were infected with a deadly idea, the people voted to have them confined to a hospital until their bodies wore out. When they transferred to their new bodies, their brains would be infected with a virus that deleted all previous memories. In a sense, the people would die. The slight minority of the assemblies were terrified. They protested, warning that this could happen to anyone who upset the so-called natural order. As the date for the assembly members transfer drew nearer, the protests grew more and more frantic, until the riots occurred. This time, the killing was on both sides. Civil war erupted in what had once been a peaceful world where its people lived forever and accumulated thousands of years’ worth of knowledge and wisdom.
She could not go home, for her home lay in ruins. Her mother and father were dead, along with all her family save an elder brother. Her friends lay dying or in combat. A few who had fled to underground bunkers designed in case of humans soon starved.
She knew the outcome; it was the same as the future of Earth. There would be nothing left. Her people would die, not at the hands of faraway strangers, but at the hands of themselves. So she would remain with the murderous strangers who were no longer so strange. In a bitter, cruel sense of the world, it was home, yet a home that had replaced the world she truly belonged in.
But then came wars no one belonged in, then came the killing of children in the name of peace, then came more bombs and more fear and more oppression. She became sick with her centuries of knowledge and so she made a choice.
Once again she contacted the survivors of her homeland and told them the people of Earth had discovered their existence. They were preparing warships. It may be generations, but her people had to prepare. Her lie fulfilled its purpose; the warring tribes laid down their arms and united to construct a weapon to take advantage of the planet while it was weakened by solar flares. The threat would go away and her people would be restored to greatness.
She tells all this to the stranger, the girl lying at her feet in the snow, perhaps as an apology, perhaps because she has gone so long concealing the truth. But the girl comes to her senses and runs away before she could finish.
I wake up in front of a fire in the hotel lobby and reach for the memories of how I came to be there. Immediately I am frightened as the strange woman and her stranger story rushes back to me. A dream, I tell myself and curl farther into my blanket. Only a dream.
“I found you out in the snow,” the man tells me. “You must have fallen. It’s mighty cold out there. I’ve called a doctor to make sure you don’t have hypothermia or somethin’.”
I nod, if only to make the man shut up. The story doesn’t make any sense. Why would a supposedly non-violent people commit genocide to create peace? Why would they leave one of their own on the land they were about to attack? My thoughts turn blurry until I feel like I’m falling. As sleep overtakes me I look out the window to see the borealis has begun. It overtakes the sky as if a small child has spilled watercolor paints over the stars. It is neither day nor night.
I cannot tell if it’s the beginning or the end.