Thursday, April 15, 2021

In Conclusion by Lou Hoffman

 It’s been a few years since we laid our bets, and I’m still confident that Ranga’s about to owe me money. Too bad Ranga is dead.

Don’t worry; I’m not too broken up about it. A lot people are dead these days. The heat took out the first round, back in my grandparents’ day, and just when humanity was adapting, they got hit by the freeze. My dad died in the freeze. That was a long time ago. Centuries.
It wasn’t only the planet trying to kill us off back then. We’ve always been best at killing ourselves. Wars, biological weapons, regular old sadness--I can’t remember which plague took which of my friends anymore, or in what order.
In a few minutes, it’s not going to matter anyway.
I sometimes wonder if the human race would have bothered trying to save itself had we known how useless it would all be in the end. We jumped from one dying planet to the next on an endless quest for a new home. All the while we fought to keep ourselves not only alive but young, not only young but beautiful. We slathered our skins with chemicals and solutions, blood and bone. When science failed, we embraced ancient rituals. We consumed the hearts of our enemies on far-off stars and bathed in the blood of virgin planets.
We’re the cockroaches of the universe. Drop a bomb on us, and we scatter and spread.
Cockroaches. I don’t think I’ve seen one in decades. They might be extinct, too, for all I know. I guess humans are better survivors after all. Or, we used to be.
Now the whole universe is set to collapse, and I guess we deserve it. The human race has never been great about considering the needs of other species. It’s no surprise that other advanced societies got real tired of our selfishness as we expanded forever outward. Like our ancestors on Earth, we stole and killed our way forward, claiming territory along the way, never once considering that there might be others out in the void--stronger, smarter, more organized--who would take issue with that.
If there was a trial, I never got wind of it, but the sentence was handed down regardless. We’re convicted murderers now, the whole human race, labeled as a threat to neighboring galaxies. With a weight of evidence against us, whole stars exploded in our wake, we’ve been condemned to death.
It doesn’t shock me that someone thinks we’re worth killing. It’s not the first time they’ve tried. But I do wonder how much better off the universe would be without us, when it seems there’s plenty of others out there willing to kill their way to the top.
The only thing that surprises me is the fact that I’m facing down the end alone.
When the sentence was announced, I had a party invite sent out within minutes. Come see the end of the world with me! Seems no one else thought it was a laughing matter, if any of them even got the note. Maybe they have someone else they’d rather spend their last moments with.
No skin off my teeth. I brought enough ales for a dozen people to this god-forsaken bit of space debris, and I’ll happily drink them all myself. I crack open my fourth. I can’t feel the container through my thick glove, but my brain still tells me it’s cold because that’s what my synapses expect. The human brain does wild things in the vacuum of space, especially after three strong ales. The amber liquid is bitter on my tongue and not cold at all anymore, but I’m not drinking for flavor.
I settle down on my favorite crag, prop my feet on a piece of blackened stone, and wonder which destroyed planet this particular spit of rock came from. No one keeps track anymore. Even the Homeworlders, that cult that has tracked every fragment of Old Earth for centuries, have given up their records and campaigning since news came of our impending destruction.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what rock you’re sitting on when you explode. Or implode. I’m not actually sure which.
Still, I can’t find fault with the view out here. Stretched out all around me, stars and planets swirl into galaxies, fading into the distance to points I can barely see, hundreds of lightyears from my perch. Debris floats by like flotsam on a river, sucked in by the gravity of a battered old moon that no longer has a planet to trail after. People have always talked about “the blackness of space”, but when you’re in it, you can see it was never black at all. It’s blue and white, purple with flashes of orange and maroon. Nothing is ever as flat as it seems from a distance. Nothing.
Past the pinprick stars reflecting toward us from other galaxies, something flashes. It’s coming.
Aside from the ale, I brought another important party supply along for this ride. I nudge the old radio next to my boot, and it crackles to life, blaring familiar words, “-clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, and I think to myself
I sigh, content. Turning, I raise my ale in toast to where Ranga might be sitting, were he still around. “What do you think, man?” I prompt the ghost. “Is it going to be a bang, or a whimper?”
Whimper, he whispers on the solar winds, and I lean back on my rock, sipping my ale with a little smile as that brilliant ray of destruction streaks closer.
“You’re going to owe me so much money.” I chuckle, because there’s nothing else left to do. The light washes over me, and the universe collapses around my laughter.

© Lou Hoffman

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