Life’s loose ends are hard to tie.
The paper lanterns hung across the road and would’ve been beautiful if anyone still lived here. He could imagine them lit, blues and greens and reds and purples, little bobbles of light dancing in the breeze while people covered by umbrellas shopped beneath them in the rain. He could almost smell it. The hot steamy rice rising from the boilers, the sizzle of fish baking on the racks. There would have been the hint of cinnamon from the sweets shop, a slight whiff in the air mixed with cumin, and honey. He could hear the minstrels play. Standing in the soft light of the market they were plucking at harp strings and guitars. One turned the crank of a hurdy-gurdy, another bowed her violin. One by one the lights in all the windows of the towering buildings behind them would have starting going out as people around the city turned in for bed. Bawdy drunks would have passed him, stumbling through the streets and laughing with their bottles of wine. Happy people on their way to anywhere but home.
A big rain drop hit him on the nose. The vision faded. The streets were utterly dark once more, and Wayln was alone.
He hugged his cloak tight against his body as he waited on the train. It was more of a symbolic gesture at this point. The wool was soaked through and the cloak felt at least fifteen pounds heavier than it should have as it pressed cold and damp upon his shoulders. Utterly useless for keeping warm. He stood beneath one of the few lamp posts that was still working and fidgeted absentmindedly with the strap of his satchel hanging at his hip. He felt the book inside, lying against his thigh, and he worried as he always did that it was still so much unfinished and he had no idea in the world what the ending would be. Only the gods knew the future. He knew that. Though, more and more it felt like maybe they hadn’t really figured out where their story was going either. Heresy, yes. Priests shouldn’t believe heresy. He did though. Or at least he was starting to. In any case, he still had three promises to keep.
Cicadas droned along the river behind him. Frogs chirped. They didn’t seem bothered by the coming night and for that he envied them. He wanted to be like the cicadas and the frogs, singing until the end. It was only people that seemed to have problems with the future, the rest of nature didn’t seem to care. The cicadas were not worried about the morrow. The frogs did not let an uncertain future ruin a certain present. That’s why he stayed behind. That’s why, really. He told himself and others a million different reasons but that was the only one that made any sense. Everybody in the world was running and here he was, a collector of stories whose only virtue was a knack for hanging around far, far too long. Because it was the ones who chose to stay that interested him. Those who didn’t run. The ones who went on working and laughing and playing right up till the end. The people who lived like the cicadas. Theirs were the stories worth telling. They were the ones with something of the Truth.
The darkened skyline was still eerie and looking at it longer didn’t make it less so. All those buildings meant for all that permanence now dead and dormant and soon going away, evanescent like the clouds or the morning dew. They were all dark now save for the scant few lights that happened to have been turned on in the middle of the day when everyone left. Pairs of lights burned here and there in distant windows like little eyes. Almost watching him. Almost saying,
We see you storyteller. We see you. He felt it was nice to be seen. In a way, that’s what worried him most. Not being seen anymore. Because that’s what Death was, wasn’t it? When you got right down to it, death was the state of never being seen.
He tried not to think about it.
The tracks began to hum. The magnetic rails below the platform began to bend and pop with energy and he lifted his eyes and looked down the track through the airlock and could just barely make out the light of a maglev coming down from the horizon. He turned his head and followed the tracks the other direction to where they disappeared on the edge of town. The great rail line arching over the city until the city stopped, the tracks running off into the wall of darkness, swallowed like everything else by Void.
Nobody knew what it was. The scientists had offered all manner of proposals and solutions but all of them had fallen flat. At first it was singularity, then a wormhole, then a space-time aberration, then an alternate universe. At one point he remembered the news calling it a “large scale quantum event” with completely straight faces, as though that were not a contradiction of terms. Void was the best word and, notably, it was not the word given to it by the experts. The folk had given it that name, which made sense, since it seemed a nightmare out of folklore. A giant standing wave of darkness. A towering curl of shadow stretching up beyond the spacescrapers and slowly creeping around the surface of the planet like a plague. Images from satellites that they never tired of showing made it look like some giant had dipped one side of the world in blackest ink and gradually, oh so gradually, that giant was lowering the rest of it down into darkness too. Bursts of lightning came out from it as he watched. It crackled like some giant continuous static discharge, spitting out arcs of colorful every like hideous fingers, grouping for whatever they might find. He’d read some time ago in the paper that they’d detected antimatter bursts coming out of the darkness too. And gamma rays. And neutrinos. And all sorts of other particles and waves with all kinds of exotic names he’d never heard of and which he had no proof some physicist hadn’t just made up as a joke or to make it seem like they understood the thing more than they did. He used to trust the scientists. Everybody did. But as the clergy had learned first hand, trust wanes quickly when you’re proven impotent to save. Nobody knew how to make sense of the Void and anyone who said they did was inevitably shown to be a liar. For Wayln that left only stories. That’s all he could find meaning in anymore.
He had trouble looking away from it. There was a seduction to the Nothingness. Almost a lust. Staring into it made the stomach heat up with both desire and fear. Part of him wanted it. All the other parts screamed emphatically behind that part that they did not. Millions had died that way. Maybe billions. It charmed them, as though with a spell. Like dazed sleepwalkers marching en masse they would go into it and it would accept them and they would be no more. But no matter how much the darkness ate it was never satisfied. It kept coming. It wanted more. Wayln stared into Hunger made manifest, an emptiness that could never be filled. Almost he felt compelled. Would it not be easier? Would it not be more restful to just lie down? Wayln’s sandaled foot started to move in that direction but then he saw a firefly. A flash of light, and he remembered who he was.
Welcome. Thank you for choosing your local EMA rapid transit service. We’re glad you decided to travel with us. Please be advised that due to Void activity in INSERT PREFECTURE HERE, some stops may not be available. Please check with an EMA service representative at the kiosk if you have any questions regarding your travel arrangements. Thank you again, and have a pleasant journey.
No. Not a firefly. Wayln blinked and he noticed that the light was blinking too. On. Off. On. Off. Wayln smiled. The train pulled up noiselessly, gliding like an angel a full twelve feet above the energized rails. Inside the cabin cars were well lit by fluorescent bulbs which shone down upon empty bucket seat after empty bucket seat, stretching as far away as he could see. It beeped.
Please stand clear of the doors.
There was a ping and the doors slid open and a retractable metal ramp extended out from the cabin and snapped down magnetically against the concrete platform, inviting him to get in. A minute later and there was another ping and the ramp retracted back and the doors closed.
This train is now leaving the station. If standing, please hold on. Remember, the journey is better, together.
The lights in the cars dimmed and it left, slowly at first but rapidly building speed to four-hundred miles per hour. The great airlocks around the rail cycled with huge hiss of air and the train entered, disappearing into the vacuum tunnel running through the mountain.
And Wayln watched it go.
There’d be another train. Probably. The red seven-segment display clock floating high above the city put the estimated time to engulfment at five hours and forty-six minutes. Estimated. The Void was by nature unpredictable, but it did seem to follow vague patterns. In any case, he’d seen a light flip on in a nearby tower and knew some other lost soul was puttering around and waiting for the end of time. Six hours was long enough for one more story. After all, without narrative, what was the point of being alive?
Breaking into a brief sprint he ran until he reached the end of the concrete. His grasp slid down along the pole at his side and it extended out, telescoping down into the ground as he jumped and vaulting him over the electric rails until he landed on the other side after performing a single flip. The flip was wholly unnecessary, true, but it was fun. That’s what he was going for, wasn’t it? To sing until the end. He clacked the claw of his finger against the side of the pole and it retracted again into a cylinder about a foot long, short enough to hang from his belt.
The raccoon broke into a jog. Time was running out and there were stories to tell.