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The End of All Days

by Michael K. Iwoleit

When Gabriel returned from his voyage there was little time left for him and the world. The thing that crossed the solar system on its course of irrevocable destruction was now less than two astronomical units away from Earth. For months a pattern of glowing red streaks had painted the heavens and the giant gravitational vortex that ripped Jupiter apart had been visible with the naked eye. The sky had returned to its soft vernal blue as in countless springs before and one could be tempted to think that there were as many years still to come.

As Gabriel, one of a handful of passengers in the two wagons of the only train that arrived this day, stepped on the platform, there was a crisp elevating peacefulness in the air. He tasted a salty savor on his tongue and imagined he could already hear the shallow surf of the Côte Sauvage that was only a few miles away. It was hard to believe that after all the marvelous and frightening spectacles that had marked the sky for years just the clear blue sky above him was the final indication that the world was about to end. The calm before the storm.

The other passengers went their various ways and within a minute Gabriel was alone. Little had changed. The old station of Le Croisic with the tin roofs above the tracks, the bare red brick walls and high dusty windows still looked as if it was designed to last for millennia to come. Gabriel put the little bag with the rest of his things on a bench, sat down and wondered what to do. He had not inquired before his return whether Shangri-La 2.0 still existed. He didn’t know if Martha still believed as much in what she did as she had believed four years ago. As he remembered her pleading eyes, her pale freckled face and her fiery red hair, an endless number of questions and doubts shot painfully through his head. He had been only twenty-two then, ten years younger than her, and he hadn’t been mature enough for a decision of that scope. He had seen so little of the world, and the time to compensate for all the experiences he would never make, for all the potentials of a life he would never have a chance to live, was running out. But still he wasn’t sure if he had set the right priorities, if there had been no other way than to leave Martha and the little community of Shangri-La 2.0 behind.

After a while he stood up, entered the station building and stepped out into bright sunlight. No-one was to be seen on the main street of the small village, behind the windows of the low crouched houses, on the pavements in front of the deserted shops and corner cafés. No cabs, buses or trams anymore. He found a bike leaning at a lamppost, but it was rusty and of no use. He would have to walk. The Shangri-La community had claimed a narrow stretch of land about five miles away, squeezed between a rocky hill and a shingle beach. He still remembered every step and turn of the way. It felt as if he had walked this way a million times. In the fifteen months that he had spent with them until the discovery of the wandering Black Hole had been confirmed, Martha and her people had left indelible imprints on his mind. During his journey he had become increasingly aware of how much they had changed him. And he had very soon started to miss her, determined that he would return when the end was near.

 ***

He had just met her and still felt as if he had known her for a life-time. When he had reached Shangri-La 2.0 and introduced himself to the steering committee, Martha had attended to him. They had set down at a coarse teak-wood table under the outstretched low-hanging twigs of an old willow, drunk wine from Shangri-La’s own vineyard and talked for hours. He had fallen in love with her almost at first sight. She smiled and laughed a lot, but there was something pained and melancholic in her face and her eyes were always slightly reddened as if she had just cried. Her voice, however, was straight and powerful. She had a strong will and intellect. She had a way of seizing him with words, peeling away his outward skin of coolness and pretensions and recognize the truth about him: that he had lost his way, that he was looking for a home and something worthwhile to do.

He still remembered every detail of their first day together.

“Tell me“, she had said. “What do you think Shringri-La 2.0 really is? Most people are under the impression that we’re kind of a latter-day hippie commune. You must have heard or read something that inspired you to come. So what did you expect?“

At this time he knew about Shangri-La 2.0 that it was one of several dozen micro-states founded in Europe in recent years, a new principle of social organization that had been imported from the USA in the late 2020’s and allowed small communities to realize their very own political and social ideas.

„Guess I was curious“, he said.

„What would you say if I’d tell you that we’re parasites? And rather schizophrenic ones at that. We draw on economic structures that we reject. Most of us work as freelancers for bio-tech or IT companies. Shangri-La is based on capital that we have earned from our political enemies. Dirty money.“

He had tried to respond with something smart but failed. During their whole conversation he repeatedly lost the thread of the conversation. He had watched her, had let his eyes wander about her slim lithe body, gripped by an overwhelming desire to touch her and more. She sensed it all. They had spent this night together and hundreds of nights after that.

When the news of the coming disaster had hit the world, and after the first shock had subsided, Shangri-La 2.0 had transformed itself into something completely new. Martha and Gabriel had first assumed that their community would collapse, and in fact many members had returned to their families and former homes. But those remaining had in their very own way faced the only questions left for humanity: What can you do with the rest of you life, knowing the exact date of your death? How can you live knowing that your final choices will be either to kill yourself or to experience horrors beyond imagination? That you will be slowly shredded into subatomic particles and that your home planet will be crumbled like a piece of dry earth? Is there any way to endure this and stay sane?

***

Near the coast the terrain rose and became bare and rocky. Tiny dust clouds swirled about the outcrops. The formerly lush meadows on the slopes had shrunk to small patches of dry yellowish weed. Gabriel tried to listen through the noise of the surf and could barely hear any birdsong. It was as if life was already retreating from the area.

He had no trouble climbing steeper stretches. His body had become much fitter , his legs and arms stronger during his travels. Although he felt that he had caught mere glimpses of the world out there, he had in fact crammed as much adventure and exploration into these four years as one possibly could. He had wandered lone pathways across the highest passes of the Himalayas. He had witnessed incredible auroras in the skies of the Far North. He had canoed through the deep-blue shoals of Pacific atolls. He had crossed the jungles of Papua New Guinea and visited remote villages where languages were spoken that no scholar had ever heard of.

But not just that – he had also experienced and, more than once, almost fallen victim to the million insanities of a species, the alleged summit of creation, that was simply not prepared to accept its end with peace and dignity. He had been in Delhi when the riots broke out after the hike of the food prices. He had been among the millions marching into the Australian outback when the coastal cities became uninhabitable. He had narrowly escaped massacres in refugee camps along the East African coast. And somehow he had even survived the hazardous boat ride across the Mediterranean Sea to return to Europe. But all this added up to nothing. The horror and the beauty he had witnessed in the world had annihilated each other, and he felt as clueless and as ignorant as before. He would get no chance to grow up in this world. He would leave it almost as incomplete as he had entered it.

The sun had sunken imperceptibly, the light had softened slightly as he reached the long crooked ridge that peaked in a spot from where he could overlook the whole of Shangri-La 2.0. He sat down on a rock to rest and looked up to the sky. The glaring orb that pierced his eyes filled him with a vague sense of hope. At least the sun would shine on for some billion years more. The Black Hole would probably not come close enough to tear off its atmosphere. It would only inject some energy and cause the sun to flare up with new power and light. Yes, there will actually be a brighter future when we are gone. The thought made him laugh.

But there was even more: Measures had been taken to rescue traces of the Earth and human life. Six months ago the last probe with data and biological samples had been sent into space. Maybe there would be a new start somewhere. Maybe humanity would get a second chance to build a wiser and more human world. Gabriel was convinced that, ultimately, nothing could die. There was no destruction in the universe, only transformation. Time would never stop. Existence would never cease. The cosmos continuously renewed itself, expanded and collapsed, exploded and was ripped apart and recreated from its own ashes. In some unforeseeable future, he thought, and in ways yet unimaginable I will live on, forever united with the woman I love.

But why am I so afraid? he wondered. Why did I have all those nightmares on my way back here? How can I still be such a coward? Nothing will happen. Nothing will die.

 ***

Shangri-La was an accumulation of some twenty flat, sand-colored buildings, distributed in an irregular pattern over a sparsely vegetated area of about a mile long and a quarter mile wide. Lawns, bushes and a few willows formed a small park in its center. Gleaming solar vehicles were parked along an encircling road. The main feature of the compound was the assembly hall, an oval-shaped building with a columned entrance and slim, light-admitting architecture. A similar structure was being built right beside it and most of the people Gabriel saw had gathered there. He noticed scaffolding and machines and was amazed that the work was still ongoing.

As he climbed down he remembered the lively atmosphere and the remarkable number of people who had worked and lived here in the heyday of Shangri-La 2.0, and the much quieter living after the disaster had been announced and half of the community had left. Things seemed to have further slowed down in the last four years. Gabriel saw only a handful of people between the buildings who appeared to be idle walkers, doing nothing in particular. Work at the building site seemed to progress in slow-motion, as if the vehicles that transported material and the cranes that lifted parts had days enough for each single task.

He paused several times and considered to turn back. But he didn’t know where else to go. Each step downward felt harder than the previous. It was long ago that his mind had played similar tricks with him. He had always felt so light and secure here. Nothing of this was left. A nagging thought suggested that he wouldn’t be welcome. Even worse: He wasn’t sure if he would welcome himself back here. As he stepped on the road at the bottom he forgot for a moment all that was behind him and all that may lie ahead. He thought only of Martha – how she may be today; what she may feel; what she may think of him.

Most of the dwelling houses he passed seemed to be uninhabited. Some guys and girls crossed his path, introverted and dismissive, and he didn’t recognize their faces. He saw from afar that Martha was among the small assembly at the building site. There was something about her that made her stand out even among a crowd of thousands. She talked to a tall, curly-haired man, pointed at something on the facade of the shell construction, and handed a pad computer over to him. Then she turned around and beckoned to somebody else. Suddenly she froze and Gabriel’s heart jumped.

He had expected hesitation and mixed feelings but there was only pure joy in her face as she became aware of him. She approached him with open arms and when he felt her pressing against his chest, everything he wanted to say was stuck in his throat, never to come out.

“I’ve expected you one of these days”, she said. “It may sound selfish, but I hoped you’d come a little earlier. Our scientists say that there are probably only…”

“Don’t tell me. I’ve stopped counting the days. I don’t want to know.”

“But the clock keeps on ticking. That’s annoying, isn’t it?”

“The clock keeps on ticking”, he said. “I hear it every second.”

She laughed, grabbed his hand and dragged him from under the dense foliage of the tree where he had stopped without noticing. She introduced him to some of her fellows but he forgot their names immediately and wasn’t sure if he’d met them before. A few minutes later they sat at the same table, on the same benches, and among the same crooked twigs where they – or rather she – had talked for so long on their very first day.

“I don’t understand”, Gabriel said and pointed toward the unfinished building. “Why do you… I mean, it will never be completed.”

“When did we ever know if anything here would be completed?” She leaned across the table and held his hands. “Anything could have happened. At any time. A flood might have come and destroyed everything. Who knows?”

“But you know now.”

“It doesn’t matter. Let’s say it just keeps us busy. What should we do? Sit around and wail?”

“So you pretend that nothing…”

“No. We just take our time for things that we cherish. That’s what we decided at our last meeting. We don’t force things anymore. When we want to interrupt work and talk, then we talk. When we want to go for a walk and think, we do so. When we want to spend a lovely evening with each other, we postpone work the next day. You value even the simplest things much higher if you see life’s limitations.”

He inadvertently shook his head. “I have missed so much.”

She squeezed his hands. “You must have experienced a lot. Maybe I have missed much more.”

A hour later some of the others joined them for an earlier dinner. Gabriel ate little and understood almost nothing of what was spoken around him. He dreaded to look into Martha’s green, weary eyes that barely turned away from him. When the others left them one by one and he was alone with Martha in a mild, starlit night, his head spun from far too much wine. He knew he’d wanted to say something, that he had to express something important going on inside of him, but he’d forgotten what it was. When Martha held his hands again, he felt wetness on his cheeks and was surprised to note that he had started to cry.

“I wish I could…” It was as if the words had to force their way through a lump in his throat. “Four years ago when I decided to leave – wasn’t this terrible? I wondered all the time if you could forgive me.”

She stood up, came around the table and pressed her lips to his brow before she pulled him up from the bench. “Come on”, she said. “You need to sleep. This isn’t our last night yet, you know. If you want to tell me something so urgently, there’s still time.”

Holding his hand, she lead him along palely lit footpaths to the dwelling area. She still had her office and her bedroom in the same small bungalow. Gabriel felt her pushing him trough the dark of the hall. A door opened and he stumbled in. Martha helped him to pull off his shoes and trousers and pushed him onto the bed. He immediately felt much clearer.

She went over to the office. A strip of dim light fell into the bedroom and illuminated scattered underwear and piles of books. He heard Martha fumble with things. For a moment he nearly panicked and feared she’d leave him alone. Then it was dark again and she came back in. Gabriel groped for the small lamp on the bed table. An amber light cloaked Martha like a being not quite substantial as he switched it on.

She seemed to enjoy undressing in front of him. She turned slowly, opened her blouse and let her skirt fall down. The sight of her trim buttocks, her fine reddish pubic hair and her small firm breasts came to him as kind of a revelation. He felt as if he had never really looked at a woman before. It was something completely natural to see her embodying everything that he ever had desired.

“You know, Gabriel”, she said, “up to certain age humans act as if their life will last forever. As if the world would never end. I’m still young enough to feel this way, although I know that my feelings are wrong. When you get fifty or so you start to lose what you love and the finiteness of all things enters your view. Let’s say that the whole world has now come to recognize these basic facts of life. We know that there will be an end, and we know when to expect it. There is no way to use your remaining time perfectly. Whatever you have done or could have done, there would always be things left unsaid, left undone and left unfinished. So don’t torment yourself.”

She smiled, deeper and more affectionate than he had ever seen her smile before, and Gabriel looked away, ashamed by her refusal to reproach him in any way.

„I don’t know what to say“, he said.

„There’s no need to talk anymore“, Martha replied, lay down beside him and switched off the light. „It’s so good that you are here. What more can we want?“

He hugged and squeezed her soft warm body, and for a moment he had the feeling that no power in the universe could ever force him to let her go. It was in this moment that he first heard that strange sound that would grow ever louder until the final moments of his life. It was a low growl, a surge in the air as if something had just started to suck out the very heart of the world. His eyes wet with tears, Gabriel drifted into a troubled sleep and something in him searched the dark for Martha’s soul, trying to fuse with all her love and compassion that he had so foolishly failed to appreciate. He dreamed of the last few days left to them and of what still might be achieved. A slight pressure seized his body, as if something was trying to lift him up, stronger with each second. Martha began to mutter softly in her sleep, comforting words that he couldn’t understand and didn’t need to understand. The clock ticking in his mind stopped. The world would end, sometime, somewhere, but he had no doubt that this moment now would last forever. Love had taken him home. He lost all his fear and dreamed away, knowing that his life was complete.

 Copyright © 2011 by Michael K. Iwoleit

Michael K. Iwoleit was born in Düsseldorf in 1962 and now lives in Wuppertal. Since the mid Eighties he is active as writer, translator, critic, and editor mostly in the science fiction field. He is co-founder and co-editor of the German sf magazine Nova and founder and editor of InterNova. His fiction has appeared in translation in Croatia, Poland, Italy, England, and USA. He is especially known for his novellas for which he won the German Science Fiction Award three times and the Kurd Laßwitz Award twice. His latest book is Die letzten Tage der Ewigkeit, a story collection, published by Wurdack Verlag in 2012.

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