Fiction: Terminal Optimism in the Face of The Event
By Jack Moody
“How much time do we have?”
“Not long now.”
From atop the hill, Mark and James had a clear view of the cosmos. On any other night the stars would have been swallowed by light pollution, obscured by the kaleidoscope of streetlamps and headlights and lit office spaces, but tonight was special.
Tonight, the buildings and empty highways were submerged beneath the shadow of the valley. The sky was brimming and alive with a million glittering sparks, stitching together the silken, purple anatomy of the Milky Way that stretched across the curvature of the Earth. There was no electricity, no blaring horns, no crying ambulance sirens. Every man, woman, and child had joined in silence to do nothing but watch the evening’s event.
“You forget how quiet the world really is,” said James. He suckled at his beer until tasting backwash, tossed the bottle onto the grass, and grabbed another from the twelve-pack box sitting between the two men.
“The Earth has a sound,” Mark answered. “Did you know that?”
“I imagine it’s screaming. I would be.”
Mark pulled a cigarette out of the carton resting by his foot and placed it between his lips. “It hums. Mmmmmmm. Like that. Scientists have been trying to record it since the fifties, but they finally did it a few years ago. And that’s what they heard—mmmmmmm.”
“Huh… like a siren song. Luring all the aliens in.”
Mark lit the cigarette and dragged until his lungs burned, responding through the exhaled smoke: “Sure.”
“Do you think they’re out there?”
James stared off into the sky, as if the evidence was going to present itself at any moment: “Aliens.”
“That’s a stupid question. You’re stupid for asking that question.”
“Okay, rude. I’m just asking, man.”
“Do you know how big the universe is?”
“Yeah, it’s big. It’s huge.” Mark outlined the ghostly cloud of the Milky Way with his cigarette. “There are eight planets orbiting the sun, okay? That’s one star.”
“What about Pluto?”
“We’re not gonna talk about that. Eight planets. One star. Currently, we estimate that there are 400 billion stars in this galaxy alone—all in that big, purple veil. We’re at the very edge of it.”
“What is this ‘we’ shit? You’re a mechanic. You didn’t figure it out.”
“The royal ‘we’, asshole. Us. People. Humanity. You know what I mean. What I’m saying is with that many stars, it’s only logical that there are billions of other planets just in this galaxy. Billions. With a ‘B’, dude. Alright? It’s just math that some of those planets could also harbor life. Anyone who thinks otherwise either doesn’t understand basic probability or can’t fathom the idea that their God created other living things that may be greater than us. It’d be ludicrous not to believe in aliens.”
“Okay, Jesus. That’s all you had to say.”
The men sat in silence for a few passing minutes, drinking and smoking. The full moon was so bright and yellow that it cast their silhouettes across the grass as if their shadows were alive and sitting beside them. A shooting star flew across the night before burning away in a flash, leaving a blue tail that faded into the horizon.
“And that’s the thing about that!”
James whipped out of his trance, spilling his beer onto his jeans. “What? What? What the fuck? What is it?”
“The whole thing with reincarnation, you know?” Mark threw out his arms like he was addressing a crowd with a grand speech. “IF it’s real—and that’s a big if—then it’s infinitely more likely that when you die, you’re not coming back as a—a fuckin’… moth or something—right? Like what are the chances that in an infinite universe, someone born on one planet out of BILLIONS is gonna then be reincarnated back on THAT SAME FUCKIN’ PLANET? The chances of that are… I mean—it’s almost impossible! You’re WAY more likely to end up some single-celled organism traipsing along some asteroid floating in space, or a 4th-dimensional being on some totally different planet a hundred million light years away, or… you get what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, I get it, man. Have another beer.” James reached into the box, bit off the bottle cap and handed it to Mark. “None of it makes a lot of sense if you start poking holes in it. But at the end of the day, it just… helps people cope. It’s all hard enough as it is. Sometimes you just gotta let ‘em have that. Especially now.”
Mark started to speak but stopped himself, and pressed the bottle to his lips.
“It’s gotta be soon by now, right?”
“Yeah,” said Mark. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to touch a nerve.”
“You didn’t, man, it’s fine. Just… read the room, y’know?”
“Yeah. I hear you.”
James blew out smoke that dissolved into the light of the North Star. “When was the last time it happened?”
“Like happened happened?”
“Yeah. Like happened happened.”
“I mean, it’s gotta have been about 75 years, right?”
“I bet it’s gonna be pretty.”
“Either way, we’re prolly the last generation that’ll witness it. That’s something, I guess.”
“Ah, who knows.” Mark brushed off the ash from his shirt, staring into the ember of his cigarette like a crystal ball. “People are like cockroaches. We always seem to find a way to keep going.”
“I don’t know,” said James. “That’s a nice sentiment, but I wouldn’t give us the best odds—y’know, considering…”
“Well, that’s the thing: People see what’s happening, and they say, ‘It’s the end of the world,’ right? ‘We’re all gonna die. The planet is doomed.’ But that’s just that humanistic thinking. It’s shortsighted. The planet will be just fine. It’s survived way worse than us—hundreds of times over. Sharks, dude? SHARKS? They’ve survived four mass extinction events. They’re old as shit.”
“A lot of them are endangered now, though. That’s all on us. We’re doing what a fuckin’ asteroid couldn’t.”
“Yeah, well. Blame Jaws.”
“Fucking Steven Spielberg.”
“Fucking Steven Spielberg.”
The two men clinked bottles and drank.
“But my point is,” Mark continued, talking around the beer swishing in the back of his throat, “we have this obsession with the end of the world. But really, all we’re doing is ending the human race. The Earth will be just fine. It’ll heal. It’ll keep on humming. Most of the animals, too. I mean, shit, human beings are all descended from one quick, little rodent that didn’t get itself incinerated with the rest of the dinosaurs. Life, uh…finds a way.”
“Jurassic Park. Great fuckin’ movie… Wasn’t that Spielberg?”
Mark furrowed his brow, staring into the patch of grass between his legs. “Shit, you’re right. Alright, he gets a point for that.”
“Call it even then?”
“Yeah, that’s fair.”
“I think it comes down to needing to feel important,” said James. “It comes down to purpose.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, just about every generation that’s ever existed has had some doomsday scare, right? There’s always some asshole proclaiming to the world that it’s coming to an end on so-and-so date. And it never happens. Until, well—”
“Yeah,” Mark cut him off, “I get what you’re saying, though. Everybody seems to be secretly hoping for the apocalypse. To get to be the generation that sees the end—the most important event in human history. Like it’ll make ‘em feel special. Going out with a bang instead of fading into nothing. Forgotten. No one wants that. So it’s comforting in a weird, backwards kinda way.”
“If you don’t think about it too hard.”
“Yeah, but that’s not asking much. Here, look at it this way: In general, most mammalian species live for around one to two million years. And that sounds pretty fuckin’ long, but when you put into perspective that mammals first showed up like two hundred million years ago, it’s really not that long at all. Now look at us: Homo Sapiens as a species have been around for about 200,000 years, and just 10,000 years as the drinking, fucking, fighting, non-nomadic humans we’d recognize as ourselves now. That’s nothing. That’s a blip. If we were really able to take ourselves out completely—like gone, boom, extinct—that would be a massive, unheard of achievement. We’re pretty good at killing ourselves, but that? I think we’d be giving ourselves a little too much credit. As stupid as we act, we still have that ancient lizard brain inside us. We’ve got survival hardwired into us. On an evolutionary scale, we’re just getting started. We’re just big, dumb, stupid babies.”
James dragged his cigarette and pulled from the beer bottle. “Where are you getting all these statistics from? You sound like an asshole.”
“Google, man. Google.” Mark shrugged. “I like to read, sue me.”
“Well, I think the sooner the better.”
“The sooner we get outta here, the better off everything else will be.”
“I don’t disagree with you. Doesn’t make it any easier, though.”
Wisps of smoke tumbled out from James’s nose. “No. It doesn’t.”
“You know what I heard once?” said Mark. “There was this astronaut, and he’d been living up on the ISS for almost a year. He’d gotten so used to the isolation and the gravity change that he got scared when it was time for him to return to Earth. He wanted to stay, but NASA told him, like, ‘No, man. You’re gonna go crazy up there. Your body can’t handle zero gravity for too long, we gotta get ya home. Time to go touch some grass,’ y’know? So he says, ‘Fine. I’m not happy about it, but fine, whatever.’
“And he jumps on the shuttle, and it’s dropping back down into the planet’s atmosphere, and he’s feeling gravity again, and the world is coming back into view through the shuttle’s window. He starts seeing the ocean and the continents, and then as he gets closer and closer he starts seeing civilization. He starts seeing all the cities: the buildings and highways and grid systems—these massive human constructions covering the big, green Earth. And you know what he thinks to himself? He thinks, ‘Human beings are a cancer. We look like a literal cancer on a living organism, growing and multiplying and brown and gray—this big, ugly growth over the body of the Earth.’
“He’s relaying all this to the command center in Houston, and they don’t know what the fuck to say. The guy’s obviously gone crazy, right? He’s just been up there too long. It got to his head. So they just nod and blah blah blah, that’s right, we’ll talk about it when we pick you up from your drop point. But this guy ain’t havin’ it. He says, ‘No, you don’t understand. Humanity is a FUCKING CANCER, and I don’t wanna go back to that.’
“So you know what he does? He lands at the drop point, somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he steps outta the shuttle, strips off all his shit, and just plunges into the water. And just keeps swimming deeper. When the extraction team showed up, he was gone. They never found his body. Poof.”
James nipped at the beer before shaking around its contents and finishing what was left. “It’s like an act of civil disobedience. Fuckin’ pointless—but the guy was bold, I’ll give him that.”
“Yeah,” said Mark. “But not just some performative act for the sake of it. The guy was protesting the existence of an entire species. He looked at human beings and said, ‘Nope. Not gonna be a part of that. I’m out.’ And he fuckin’ killed himself. The balls, man.”
“Like fuckin’ cantaloupes. I couldn’t.”
“But imagine seeing what he saw. Imagine the level of perspective he got from up there. Seeing the vastness of space, everything beyond, all of this untouched creation, and then coming back down to that tiny, pale blue dot, and looking down at what we’d done to it. Everything we’d been fighting over—killing, robbing, screaming, raping, hating, poisoning for thousands of years—all to help spread this disgusting growth over the surface of one miniscule corner of beauty in the endless beauty of the unknown. How fucking pointless would it all seem to you at that moment? Right? It must have been liberating—that level of insight. Like seeing God or something.”
“He saw outside of the tunnel vision.”
“Exactly. He got a taste of the bigger picture, and he broke out.”
“You give in or you give up.” James pulled out two more bottles from the box. “Finish your beer, man. Think it’s about time.” He pointed to the edge of the sky. The deep blue canvas had begun dissolving into a bright orange aura, spreading out over the distant horizon like spilled liquid.
Mark drank, tossed the bottle, and popped open the cap on his last drink.
At that moment, a thunderous boom shook the ground like an earthquake, and the orange aura erupted upwards in the sky, burning away the stars like an inorganic sunrise.
“You were right,” said Mark, watching the cloud rise out of the otherworldly light. “It’s real pretty.”
The two men held up their beers, together gazing at the blinding, miles-high wall of fire cascading towards them.
James glanced at his friend. “So. What are we toasting to?”
“To giving up,” said Mark.
James smirked. “Alright. To giving up.”
Their bottles clinked together, and they drank.
Over the roar of the approaching stampede, Mark grabbed James’s arm and spoke: “I hope it doesn’t hurt.”
James leaned into his body, looking out over the disintegrating city.
Jack Moody is a novelist and short story writer from wherever he happens to be at the time. He is the author of the novel Crooked Smile and the short story collection Dancing to Broken Records, as well as a former staff writer for the literary magazine and podcast Brick Moon Fiction. His work has appeared in multiple publications including Expat Press, Misery Tourism, Maudlin House, Punk Noir Magazine, Scatter of Ashes, Paper and Ink Magazine, Horror Sleaze Trash, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Bear Creek Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. He didn't go to college.
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