The sharp smell of ozone filled the air, and a loud whine erupted around them. Roy looked up at the ship, but Susan kept her eyes on Roy. The lights on the bottom of the ship began to flash faster now and now faster, until they became solid. Roy and Susan looked at each other, fearful, but resigned.
-- Corby Kennard, (Artwork by Erin Wells)
“And that will end the final broadcast of this station. If … anyone is watching this … we’d just like to say thank you for many years of loyalty, although I suppose that sounds quite hollow now, I’m going home to be with my wife and children, and the rest of the staff will, hopefully, be doing the same. There are vigils and prayer circles everywhere; I passed a few on the way to the station this morning; so I am sure that you will be able to find comfort in this, our darkest hour. I’m sorry … I’m … I’m at a bit of a loss. This is Brian Emerich, signing off for the final time. Good bye and, God bless us all.”
The anchorman stood up and walked out of frame just before the “Technical Difficulties” screen showing a bewildered TV repairman coiled in coaxial cable took over, followed seconds later by static as the signal was turned off at the source.
Roy stared at the screen for a few more seconds. He pressed the power button on the remote, and the set clicked off. The silence was broken only by occasional sounds of crying from the apartment next to his. He didn’t know the woman who lived there; he had only seen her once. His interest in the other tenants in the building had always been academic at best. There was a couple on the ground floor who may or may not have had a baby; three guys in the place to his right who were either unemployed, drug dealers, musicians, or college students, or maybe all four; a single/divorced/widowed woman in the flat above him who had a lover or a sister; and the crying woman on his left, who probably had a boyfriend, or she could have been a hooker or party girl, or lapsed nun.
He’d thought many times this week about introducing himself to his neighbors. Better late than never, he figured. But he hadn’t seen the downstairs couple since all this started, and the college student drug dealers had all left, probably to spend time with family. The woman upstairs had jumped out the window two days ago, and he’d never been very good with crying people. So he’d sat on the couch, watching the commentators and pundits explain to an increasingly fragile populace that this was by turns a liberal/conservative, hoax/threat, sign from God/trick by Satan, or any other bizarre theory they could fathom. Why, just that morning, hadn’t he watched some fruitcake claim that there really weren’t spaceships out there in the sky, but that this was a mass hallucination brought on by a reaction to bio engineered foods and some sort of odorless gas released by additives in our fuel supply? Roy supposed that the millions of suicides and stress-related deaths were just the result of “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”
He looked out of his window into the sky. The ship still loomed over the city, pulsing lights chasing each other over the rounded hull, creating a broken Rorschach design in the skyscraper windows, towering thousands of feet into the air. There were only a couple of cars left in the apartment’s parking lot. One was his; he guessed the other one belonged to his now-silent/now-crying neighbor. Apparently, the rain had stopped somewhere between the TV fruitcake and the anchorman’s sign off. The lights playing about the ships edge were refracted beautifully in the beads of water covering the vehicles below, ironically, to Roy’s eyes, considering the destructive power they contained.
When Roy watched old science fiction films as a kid, the plots had always seemed so predictable. Whenever aliens arrived on Earth, they were surrounded by the military, and invariably some misunderstanding would seal Earth’s fate, until the space beings were destroyed either by random bacteria, the kindness of a woman, or, in one strange take on the trope, the extra high notes sung by legendary yodeler Slim Whitman. But when these ships arrived exactly 30 days ago, there was no misunderstanding. It took Earth scientists about a week to gain a rudimentary understanding of the message the beings had given them. They discovered that all indigenous life had one of Earth’s months to vacate the planet, as these beings needed to change the atmosphere to be largely sulfurous to grow their food, and the buildings were in the way of the best crop growing land.
By the time the aliens understood that not only had people no way of leaving, but no intention of doing so, they expressed their regrets, but there was nothing they could do. If civilization was so backward that Earthlings could not make it to the stars, they would be at the mercy of the universal majority. Earth, which was called something else in their language, no longer belonged to humans, and the beings would be cleansing it in about one week. Most people didn’t believe it at first, not really, making comments like “Someone will figure it out, they always do.” or “Sure, I can meet you next week, but I might be a little late. That’s after the end of the world, you know.” And they’d have a good laugh.
Soon after, the government stopped trying a diplomatic solution and started firing at the ships. How the world had hoped mere days ago that the nuclear missiles launched toward these targets would solve their problems. How the world had feared when the missiles were atomized when some strange light erupted from the hull of the ships. How the world had despaired, finally, seeing no way out.
The aliens quickly became a poster child for just about every single cause on the planet. Some Christians claimed that these being’s very existence proved God; that this was a test of faith. The atheists were sure that if there was a God, the aliens never would have showed up. The environmentalists said if people had taken better care of the Earth, this never would have happened. Oil company PR men gleefully pointed out that no amount of global warming or holes in the ozone would have changed the current situation. All of them seemed to feel vindicated.
Roy turned from the window and stood. Looking at the clock, he saw it was 10 p.m. Only two hours to extinction. Walking to the front door, he suddenly felt a great need to be … somewhere. Anywhere. Just not here, in this cluttered apartment, this singular existence, this windowed coffin. If he was going to be …; well, in any case, he preferred to be stomping through mud puddles and listening to oblivious frogs sing their mating songs.
He stepped outside, turned to his front door, then stopped. “Why lock it?” he snorted. He left the lights on and the door standing open. The earlier rain had left the air damp. He moved from puddle of light to puddle of water, swirling mist marking his passage through the night. He felt the droplets on his face and arms for what felt like the first time in his life. The sulfurous rainwater beaded on his lips, and Roy wondered that he’d never noticed the taste before. It was horrible and marvelous.
Roy walked past a church. Looking inside, he saw people praying to the heavens, some demanding salvation, some for the salvation to come. Either way, they were swaying to the prayers; singing, humming, hoping. Most of them were holding candles, or holding someone holding a candle. Roy stood in the doorway, tempted to join that human chain of contact; but having had so little compassion for his fellows prior to this, he found it difficult to advance farther into the church. By the time anyone noticed him standing in the portal, he had moved on.
He came to a little park that he’d passed on the way to and from work every weekday for the last six years. It was open to the sky, and he just stood, alone as always, looking up at the apocalypse. It didn’t frighten much anymore. It almost seemed too real, almost anti-climatic, as if everything had already been destroyed, but it just took a while to fall to ashes.
Wandering through the dirt playground, he spun the carousel wheel, a memory of dizzy glee and nausea. He rode one of the springy horses, and whooped like a cowboy. He tried the long metal slide, sticking to the surface until it should have been renamed a “scoot”. Finally, he just sat on the swing, moving back and forth lazily, looking at his feet. Nothing broke the silence except for the occasional sob or prayer carried on the wind.
“Is this seat taken?” asked a voice behind him.
Roy stopped swinging, and looked over his shoulder. In the ambient light of the arc lamps and spaceship lights stood a tall blond woman with a strange expression on her face, as if she was as surprised as he to find someone out here, alone. She was quite attractive, and his heart made a completely unfamiliar but not unwelcome squeeze that took his breath away.
“Well, I was saving it for nobody special, but then you showed up.” He wondered where that had come from. Must’ve seen it in a movie once, he thought.
She looked at him, stunned for a second, then suddenly smiled as she understood the compliment. It was the single most beautiful thing Roy had ever seen. He held out a swing to her.
“Roy,” he said.
She stepped forward. “Susan.”
“I’m not very good with people,” said Roy. “But I sure would enjoy the company.”
Susan sat in the swing and rocked opposite of Roy for a few moments. “I used to love looking at the moon,” Susan stated. She sounded angry.
“It’s been a long time since I just looked at the moon,” said Roy.”It’s been a long time since I took a good look at anything, really. And now, there’s only that,” he gestured upwards, “to look at.”
“No,” said Susan. “No regrets. Not now.” They swung in silence for a while longer. Sometime during the silence, Roy took Susan’s hand, and held it like a piece of onion paper, trying not to crumple it while making sure it didn’t get away. The contact warmed his hand, and then his heart, and he felt a sense of belonging that he’d forgotten existed. He smiled, guardedly at first, then broadly and openly. In that moment, he understood love. Not intimate love; the love of husbands and wives; the love of furtive glances and rushed couplings in backseats; not even the love of his sixth grade sweetheart, who left him for Tommy, the boy who had the Def Leppard patches on his denim jacket. No, the love he felt was bigger, it encompassed everything he saw, it was love for the dirt under his feet, no longer just something to walk on, but something to connect all others who walked on it; the people in the church he’d passed who no longer seemed so cloying and pathetic, but strong for recognizing the truth of what was being lost; this girl, Susan, who meant more to him at this moment than he could ever truly explain.
“What are you smiling at?” she asked him. He shook his head, and started laughing. She looked at him even more strangely than when she’d arrived earlier, and started to pull away. Roy held her tighter, and with both hands. He shook his head, and laughed even harder, in the way that trying to calm down can send one into hysterics. This had been a long time coming, but Susan began to look trapped, eyes darting each way, seeking help that would not be there.
“No, you don’t understand.” he wheezed when he’d calmed down. “Everything in my life, your life, bringing us here, to this spot, to find each other. I should be angry at how unfair this all is, finding love at the end of the world!” Roy rubbed the back of her hand with his, eyes on hers, staring with sincerity and truth. “But I’m not! I’m not angry! I’m just … happy ….” he giggled once more and caught his breath. Susan relaxed and gripped his hand once more, needing the intimacy as much as he. The touch was electric to him.
The sharp smell of ozone filled the air, and a loud whine erupted around them. Roy looked up at the ship, but Susan kept her eyes on Roy. The lights on the bottom of the ship began to flash faster now and now faster, until they became solid. Roy and Susan looked at each other, fearful, but resigned. “I hope it doesn’t hurt.”
The white beam erupted from the bottom of the ship as the church bells pealed midnight. They held hands, and Susan closed her eyes.
“Do you truly love me?” she asked.
“Yes.” said Roy, and he meant it. “Do you?”
“Yes.” Susan lied kindly, and Roy smiled.
He was still smiling as their bodies were hit by the strange white light, disassembling them atom by atom, and blowing the dust into space, where humanity could finally mingle with the stars for eternity.
-- Corby Kennard