"The lights... my God, they're beautiful."
* * * * *
Now. The starship's exhaust briefly lit the night sky, and then it was gone.
Jim turned away from his bedroom window, letting the curtain fall back into place, and went into the kitchen to make some coffee. Commentators spoke to him from various softscreens scattered about the messy apartment:
"The ship has just lifted..."
"And it's a successful launch for..."
"— in a desperate bid to escape..."
"— gives us hope."
Jim laughed bitterly at that last comment. Hope. Hope is in the sky, he thought, along with something else. He picked up a plate from the dish drainer, part of a set his mother-in-law had given them for their first anniversary, and threw it against the wall, still laughing.
He cursed obscenely, and slid to the floor. He glanced toward the bathroom, saw the light on and the door cracked open. Natalie was in there, he knew, in a bathtub filled with blood. But he didn't want to think about it — not here, not now. Instead, he thought about Hope.
* * * * *
November. The sky is falling, and he has forgotten his umbrella. With a pang of regret, he realizes he is growing old — he can feel the rain seeping into his bones, an alien presence causing him pain. Once, the clouds passed overhead; now they move through him like ghosts, chipping away at his soul.
Today is Friday. This is his weekend to keep Jessica. He has already made plans — the zoo tomorrow, and then perhaps a late movie, and then ice skating on Sunday. For a moment, however, he has second thoughts. Maybe she is too old for the zoo, for ice skating, for Sno Cones in the park. He shakes his head violently, killing the train of thought and drawing a few stares from passers-by on the crowded Manhattan street. It doesn't matter — he promises himself that he will treasure these moments with his daughter while they last.
He thinks of Jessica, and of Natalie, for a long time, barely conscious of the cold Manhattan drizzle, the rough sidewalk beneath his feet. At times like this, he becomes one with the city. The concrete, the buildings, the sky, all melt into a featureless grey landscape of the mind, a drab, dirty clay, that he can mold into anything he wants. Here is Jessica, emerging from the formless void, running to embrace him. Here is the house on Mulberry Street, inviting him to step across its threshold and even deeper into the recesses of his memory. Faces, friends and enemies alike, drift past him on this lonely sea of grey.
He remembers the book on time travel that Natalie bought for his birthday seven years ago. He wasn't able to understand most of it, but it filled him with a sense of awe and wonder nonetheless, a deep feeling for the sheer majesty of the universe around him. He realizes now that the book was wrong. You don't need a machine to go back in time. No wormholes, no quantum tunneling, no rifts in space-time. All you need is a rainy day in Manhattan, and memories of all the things you've lost along the way.
He is broken from his reverie by a firm hand clasping his shoulder, and a gravelly voice in his ear: "Brother, have you SEEN the light?"
He turns, startled and somewhat angry. The grip on his shoulder loosens, and a ratty pamphlet is shoved into his hands. The street preacher gazes into Jim's eyes; he stinks of feces and piss and stale beer. His mouth moves, but Jim pays no attention to what he says. After all, he's heard it all before. This same guy stops him every evening on his way to work, gives him the same speech and the same pamphlet. Jim wonders what the old man sees in him. Why does the preacher stop him and no one else, day in and day out? Does he see a need to believe in Jim's eyes? Some strange form of kinship?
Jim shudders at the thought of having a bond with this homeless derelict. He turns back and continues on his way. The preacher calls out after him, "Don't turn your back on the word of the Lord, son! Look into the sky and see His glory!"
Jim glances skyward for just a moment, immediately hating himself for doing so. But wait — there's something up there. No bigger than a distant star, but somehow brighter, hanging east of the sun. What the hell is that?
He notices for the first time that he isn't the only one looking up. Around him, the crowded street has come to a standstill; there are gasps, frightened looks on a hundred different faces. He looks heavenward again, and thinks, My God, is this the end of the world?
* * * * *
Now. Jim was still on the floor, head in his hands, when he heard a knock on the door.
Shit! He jumped up, knocking over his coffee cup in the process. He grabbed the broom beside the stove and said, perhaps a little too loudly, "Who is it?"
"Hey Jim, it's Mike. I, um, I just need to talk to you for a minute."
"Okay, give me just a second! I'm putting some clothes on!"
"Oh, okay. Sorry."
" 'S all right." He swept broken glass beneath the refrigerator, wiped tears from his eyes. "I'll be there in a minute." On his way to shut the bathroom door, he glanced out the window. The sky was glowing a deep crimson.
* * * * *
November. With a start, he realizes he is at work. The tall building looms before him like a monster from a black and white movie; his reflection in the door looks withered and grotesque. The people around him are still jabbering like monkeys and pointing to the sky. Jim Cannon, however, is a practical man. There is nothing he can do about the new star shining beyond the sun, whatever the hell it is, so why worry about it? He has calmed considerably since his first surprised reaction, and now he is numb to the phenomenon, as he is to most things.
The gold plate on the arch above the door says, "Barrow, Cannon, & Lightner, Attorneys-at-Law." The "Cannon" refers not to Jim Cannon, but to his brother Steve. Jim is reminded of this every time he sees the plaque. Another regret, another missed opportunity. He shrugs his shoulders and walks inside thinking, Oh well, life goes on.
The cold air chills him as soon as he steps into the air-conditioned lobby. He has forgotten that he is soaking wet. The receptionist eyes him distastefully as he removes his drenched hat and coat, shivering. He smiles and waves at her. She glares at him for a moment, then returns to her paperwork. He sniffs and walks over to the broom closet, carefully hanging his coat and hat on the rack inside. Then he pulls out a mop and starts working.
* * * * *
Now. Jim and Mike sat on opposite ends of the couch. A heavy silence hung between them, awkward and oppressive. It's the rift in the sky, thought Jim, something so huge and awful that neither of us can find the words to express our feelings about it.
Finally Mike speaks. "Where's Natalie?"
"She . . . she went to bed early, with Jessica," said Jim. He gestured to the window, to the sky. "This garbage is taking a pretty big toll on both of them."
"Oh," Mike said noncommittally. "It's a shame. The way you always talk about her, I've been wanting to meet her."
Jim started to say, "She's the best thing that ever happened to me", but the words caught in his throat. Instead he offered Mike a beer.
Out of the blue, Mike said, "Rachel left me. Didn't even say goodbye."
"Oh hell, Mike, that's awful. What happened?"
"Well . . .she . . . she's been seeing someone else..."
"— and I knew about it, but I didn't say anything because I didn't want to lose her completely. And now she's gone."
Jim didn't know what to say. He was silent for a moment, then said, "But you two always seemed so happy together. I was actually jealous of you."
"But why? You and Natalie are doing okay, right?" He looked at Jim, noticing for the first time the sadness in his eyes. He sighed and said, "I guess times are hard for both of us."
Mike's mouth continued moving, no doubt expressing every single doubt and regret that he'd had from the beginning, but Jim stopped listening to the words. He nodded in the right places, but his eyes were glued to the window, to the blood-red sky. He was lost again, in another time and place.
* * * * *
November. He is scraping crap off the toilet seat in the men's bathroom. People are such foul animals. He wonders if this is his brother's... He grimaces and scrubs harder. Suddenly, there is a face reflected in the water of the toilet bowl. He jumps back, his heart skipping a beat, half-expecting a hand to clamp down on his shoulder, a gravelly, ancient voice to whisper in his ear: "Brother, have you SEEN the light?"
Instead, he hears the sound of Mike's laughter behind him.
"You worthless S.O.B!"
This makes Mike laugh even harder.
"You... heh... you should have," he gasps, "should have seen your face."
"Jesus H. Christ."
"Yes, can I help you?" says Mike, and now they are both laughing. It feels good to laugh... it's been awhile.
Later, during their cigarette break, Mike asks him what he thinks of the hole in the sky.
"Hole in the sky? That's what they're calling it?"
"Yup. I figure, you're the resident sci-fi nut, so maybe you know what it is."
"Hell, all the science fiction stories in the world couldn't prepare anybody for this. Maybe it's a rogue black hole, maybe it's aliens from Dimension X. For all I know, it's the second coming of Christ."
"Well, thanks for the insight there, buddy. Everything's so much clearer now." This sends them both back into fits of laughter, and the conversation soon turns to other subjects. Wives, children, sports, work... life goes on.
* * * * *
Now. Jim and Mike stood at the window, staring out at the sky. There was no moon, no stars, only bright flickers of color: red, white, orange, pale blue, and underneath it all, a steady, unchanging blackness. It's almost here, he thought. In the street below, people were running back and forth like ants. A few fires had sprouted in the alley, and he could hear faint screams.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" said Jim.
Mike hesitated, and then said, "As beautiful as ever."
* * * * *
January. "Daddy, what's a false vacuum?"
He has been dreading this day for months. How can he explain to his only daughter that the universe is about to die, that something new and wholly different will take its place, that life as we know it is going to end? He sighs and sets her on his lap like he did when she was just a baby.
"Well, honey, a false vacuum is what we exist in right now. Think of the universe as, say, an elephant balanced on a beach ball. Just one little push could make that elephant topple over, right?"
Jessica nods her head solemnly.
"Okay, well that push happened, some way or another. Some people think that aliens may have caused it. Or maybe it was a particle accelerator mishap. Or maybe it was just some random thing that happened. But basically, what it comes down to is that our universe, the false vacuum, is shifting into a more stable state of existence, a true vacuum. That bubble you see in the sky, that's the manifestation of the true vacuum. Inside it, the laws of physics are being changed. The symmetry of our world is breaking. And it's heading our way . . ."
Later, he wonders how much of it she understood. And just how much does HE understand?
* * * * *
February. Often, he finds himself thinking of the street preacher, his dirty beard and his ragged clothes. Could someone so ugly and wretched be a messenger of truth? He fingers the pamphlet in his pocket and imagines that all the sins of the world are going to be washed away.
Sometimes he can hear the rift in the sky calling his name.
Steve says he is crazy, that the bubble means death, an end to existence, but Jim isn't so sure of anything anymore. He wishes he could be as self-confident as his brother. Steve thinks that life has no more meaning, that all is for naught. "Look at that thing," he says, "pointing to the sky, "it's going to kill us all."
Jim says, "Or transform us."
* * * * *
Now. They were sitting on the couch again.
"Mike, I have a confession."
"Okay. Go ahead. Tonight's as good a night as any, I guess."
"Natalie and I have been divorced for five years, ever since Jessica was in diapers."
"All that crap I told you, about how happy we were, what a great family I have, it was all a lie. Every goddamn bit of it. Like I told you before, I was jealous of what you and Rachel have. Had."
"Jim, you didn't..."
"Wait, Mike, I'm not done. There's more. She came to see me tonight, Natalie did. She was . . . concerned. You see, Jessica had... she... Natalie didn't like the fact that I had told Jessica the truth about the vacuum collapse."
"What do you mean, Jim?"
"Natalie felt like she wasn't old enough to know the truth. We argued about it for a while, back and forth, back and forth. That effing THING out there had us both on edge, I guess. Anyway, she said she was going to the bathroom, to get away for a second, to calm down. And then . . ."
"What, Jim? What is it?"
" . . ."
"Jim, talk to me."
" . . ."
"Jim, if I open that bathroom door, what am I going to find?"
"She slit her wrists open, Mike. She's in the bathtub, dead, and she slit her effing wrists!"
Jim collapsed to the floor, sobbing. Mike sat still for a moment, then stood and slowly walked to the bathroom door. Jim heard it creak open, heard the light switch flick on, and then silence. Mike didn't come out for a long, long time.
* * * * *
April. Her name is Hope, and she is mankind's greatest achievement. She was built in orbit, by members of a hundred different nations cooperating for the first and probably the last time. She is five miles long and holds a crew of fifty. Ironically, she is fueled by the same quantum fluctuations that most likely caused the vacuum collapse in the first place. Space isn't completely empty, you see. Quantum mechanics tells us that virtual particles are constantly popping in and out of existence... Hope uses that to her advantage. She has two vibrating metal plates right outside her main drive. Whenever a particle appears, it is trapped by the plates and split, its energy used to power the ship. She can travel at nearly the speed of light, just fast enough to outrace the true vacuum.
Jim follows the news of the great starship with enthusiasm and, well, hope. This is the perfect representation of man's glory, he thinks, and of God's. It shows that, in the end, we are able to put aside all our differences in order to save ourselves.
The ship will launch in two weeks; not long after that, the vacuum collapse will destroy the Earth.
* * * * *
Now. "Jim, did you kill your wife?"
Jim looks up, tears rolling down his face. "What did you say?"
"I said, did you kill your wife?"
"She killed herself, Mike! Can't you see that?"
"I'll tell you what I see, Jim. I see a man crouching in the floor of his own living room, mumbling about starships and vacuums and colours in the sky."
Jim stopped for a moment, straining to think. Finally he said, "She said I was poisoning Jessica's mind, telling her the world was going to end."
Mike hesitated, then said, "And do you think the world is going to end?"
Jim leapt to his feet suddenly, and ran toward the window. Before he could make it, though, Mike grabbed him. Jim, his face livid, reached out to the sky. The night was alive with color; misty shapes appeared and disappeared in the heavens. "I want to be on the starship," he said.
"This is the twenty-first century, Jim. There's no such thing as starships."
Jim screamed in rage. "Can't you see the bubble in the sky? Can't you feel it?"
Mike looked out the window. "I see stars, and I see the moon. Nothing else."
The screams of the people in the streets, the steady crackling of the fires below, all these were drowned out then by something else: the sound of police sirens. No wonder he spent so long in the bathroom, thought Jim. He was calling them.
"Jim, you're sick. You need help. And we're going to get it for you, all right? Okay?"
"Mike . . .brother . . .have you SEEN the light?" Jim said. He was laughing now, a harsh, grating giggle. "Just look at them, up in the sky. They're almost here, Mike. And when they come, they'll wash everything away. They'll transform us. The lights... my God, they're beautiful!"
That was the last thing Jim Cannon ever said.
Copyright © 2003 by Chris Dodson