I've spent my whole life exploring. I can hardly remember a time when I wasn't into it in some way. Even in my youth, looking back, it feels like everything led to this. It was meant to be a lifelong project. I never thought it would end, really. I thought you could continue learning about the world forever.
Except, the world's not flat like we thought. Everything I do, every figure I run, makes it more and more certain. The world is round. We've been wrong all along.
I haven't really shared my results with anyone yet. A few of my colleagues, of course, but I'm not sure I'm ready to tell the world. I keep trying to find a way that I might be wrong, and sometimes I feel like I'm close, but I know I'm only fooling myself. It's solid. We were wrong.
The thing is it doesn't change that much. It ought to be a fantastic discovery, revolutionize the world. But despite changing everything I'm going to keep doing basically what I've always done, except now I know that I'd been mistaken on the sort of thing I took for granted all my life. The very core of everything changed, and nothing else.
I set sail tomorrow. We are going west. I have never been more confident in my success. I have also never felt so much like everything I've ever done is fruitless.
I've spent my whole life exploring. I can hardly remember a time when I wasn't into it in some way. Even in my youth, looking back, it feels like everything led to this. It was meant to be a lifelong project. I never thought it would end, really. I thought you could continue learning about the world forever.
Important milestones are all well and good, but it is difficult to be hopeful with weather like this--not quite snowing but definitely not raining, either, and the winter's far from over. I'm not hopeful for the future. I think a lot of things could go wrong. I know they will. Nothing lasts. Terrible things are happening every day. There is nothing that I can do to improve the world and very little I can do to even help the people around me. I used to think that I could make them laugh, at least, but who remembers that even a day later?
I'm standing here waiting for a bus that will never come with a girl who I haven't known for too long, but she makes me smile and I think she means it when she laughs at my jokes, even though I don't joke too much around her, because I joke when things are going wrong. And earlier today all the politicians were making their speeches about the world. It felt so strange and disconnected, watching everyone pretend that no one is responsible for the problems they caused and act like it's possible to fix them.
And I know she doesn't fix things, and she won't fix me. But it's cold out and miserable and we're all alone out here, and I don't want to live in a world where no one can make me smile, or where I have to act like anything that I just said is true.
One and a half years ago to the day, I was sitting in the sun in eastern Washington with some local microbrews I've forgotten the name of and some people I haven't seen since. I lived in Seattle. I never thought I'd run into them again. It was hot out and we didn't do much besides sit outside and enjoy the late July sun.
It was quiet and peaceful and completely other, like some strange haven from the rest of the world. In a sense I never felt more peaceful or at home than I did that day. We talked about the future, having no idea what the future would hold, but confident that we'd all get there okay. There was no if about it, but there was definitely a when and a how.
I'd since almost forgotten. I met new people. It was a few weeks later that I met the girl I'd later fall in love with, and a few months later that I'd run away from the West coast for reasons I could never quite articulate to pursue goals that fell through right away. I spent several months wandering the country, keeping in touch with her as I could--it was the only thing I really kept.
There was a summer day a lot like that one, except in some little town in Illinois I don't even remember the name of, except the people I was with weren't like old friends at all, and I talked to the girl I'd fallen in love with on the phone. She'd meet me in South Dakota, she said. "I'll se you in Rapid City."
She never came. I took the money I'd saved to buy her something pretty and kept going west. I came home with nothing to show for it and with no idea where my love had gone, except that it wasn't here, and when I tried calling or emailing she never answered as soon as she knew it was me.
Eventually I found someone else and had a very nice relationship with her for a few months, but all things have to end some time. I gathered up my belongings and travelled east again. I'm in some little town in Wisconsin now. I couldn't spell the name. And I looked at the calendar and remembered a day when I knew that everything would be clear and perfect--not if, but when.
Strangely enough I still believe it.
Since leaving my girlfriend I've become obsessed with not leaving a trail. I don't want anyone to track me anywhere, and sometimes that means I have to make some concessions to privacy. No more cell phones. Only use the internet from public places. Encrypt everything. And so on, and so on.
It's not enough. I've taken to trying to clear up my fingerprints from everywhere I go, shaving so I can't leave any hairs anywhere. Gloves if I can get away with it, and long sleeves. I've stopped smoking. It's harder than it sounds, because you can't let people know you're trying to wipe out your trail. You have to look natural. You have to look unremarkable.
But I was walking to the store today to buy groceries--cash--and I realized--I still wear shoes. The soles wear down. Every step I'm taking has got to be leaving some little bits of rubber or leather or whatever I'm wearing there on the sidewalk or the floor or the street. Could someone follow me if they knew what to look for?
And there they are. A little beat up already, even though I've only had them for a week or two. And they are beat up because of where I've been. Every step, every time I've tripped over an unexpected bump in the road, that's on my shoes, and that must have left its little trace. It's like no matter what I do I'm leaving traces. Someone could find me. They could know everything I've ever done.
She is five years old and she does not believe that she is riding the bicycle on her own. Her father is telling her that he let go, that she rode on her own, and she will not believe that he lied, does not believe in her own capabilities.
This was seventeen years ago. She is remembering it now and she does not know why. Like most memories, it came unbidden, and there is a moment where it is all she thinks of, ignoring her best friend, who has been her friend long enough that it is hard to keep track of how long, exactly.
And then her best friend is saying her name, and, "Hello?"
And she smiles and says, "Sorry, I was miles away." She does not know what happened to that bicycle. She rides her bike every day now, to work and to the store. She likes the freedom that it gives her, the mobility. It makes the city smaller. "Do you remember the first time you rode a bike? Without training wheels, I mean?"
For her it is a country road, and she is crying because she believes her father is tricking her. She does not recall what happened after, except that she is certain she did not try again that day.
"Not really. Why?"
"Just remembering, I guess. Don't know where it came from."
"What was yours?"
"I was five thought everyone in the world was playing a cruel trick on me." She smiles. "What a strange thing to worry about."
I have been trying to write you a love letter for some time now. I have crossed out more words than I have kept so far. The ones I kept go like this:
We are phenomenally unlikely. As Stoppard wrote: "I hope that doesn't sound surprising because its very unsurprisingness is something I am trying to keep hold of." An endless string of trivial details led us together, each one of them vitally important. And, taken together, it is a phenomenally unlikely string.
Is it weird to wonder if I would have met you if I didn't have this scar by my eye? Even that feels so significant. It could have changed my whole outlook. I'd never know. Maybe we'd still have met but something would be different. I wouldn't be who I am, just like I'm not who I was.
You've got your share of scars, too. You've lived your life--and I mean "lived" in the active sense, not the passive way most of us do--and I've lived mine, and every single moment has shaped us, so that this moment happened and is so completely perfect.
All we have to show for it are scars and stories, but they are our scars and our stories, and they're all so unlikely and so perfect. The best discoveries, they tell me, are often accidents.
They gave me a choice. It was important that there was a choice. I don't remember what it was. That was also important. But today I woke up knowing that a decision had been made--one that would shape the course of the rest of my life. I didn't know what that future was but it was laid out so clearly in front of me. I walked outside to look at the world--which was still running along just as planned. I think I expected a skyline on fire, a desolate wasteland. I expected ruin. Whatever choice I'd made felt apocalyptic. I felt like I had destroyed something precious, something I could never get back to.
And yet here we were. The grass was green. The flowers were starting to bloom. Everything was so beautiful and new, like the world was created just then.
I opened the newspaper. Everything I'd ever fought for in my life was happening. All the causes I'd campaigned for were seeing real changes. Optimistic spokesmen said they thought they'd see a real, equal America in their lifetimes. We'd won, almost overnight. I read the entire newspaper and it was all beautiful news.
Except for the obituaries. Quietly in the night, unexplained causes. The doctors said it was peaceful. She was young and had a lot of hope for the future. "She was full of love," her mother said in an interview. "The world's going to be a lot lonelier place with her gone."
You can learn a lot about people by the things they carry. Maybe there is a special photograph to them they keep in their wallet, hidden behind some old business cards. Or some letters they keep and read every day, unfolded and refolded hundreds of times in a jacket pocket. A favorite book. A tool. Even their trash can say a lot about them. Ticket stubs and bus transfers, receipts and candy wrappings. Little stories about lives, told in useless relics.
I used to pretty regularly unearth some receipts or cards or trash that reminded me of something I'd done--a dinner or a party or something. It was fun putting on jackets I hadn't worn in a while and finding evidence of what I'd done.
Except, my pockets are empty now. My bag is completely empty. I don't know what happened. There's nothing there--not so much as a crumpled straw wrapper to indicate that once I had been to a restaurant. None of the books I used to carry around in case I needed to read. Neither pen nor chapstick tube, sunglasses nor wallet. And every time I try to add something to my pockets or my bag it just disappears eventually.
So now I carry nothing, like some shallow movie prop, something that exists to add depth to the scene without possessing any depth of its own.
It is safe to say I have been preoccupied with disaster lately. I've been gearing up for the worst, and "the worst" involves a lot of different things in different circumstances.
I've put more locks on the doors, better locks, resistant to picking, resistant to brute force. They are alarmed and made of fire-resistant materials. The windows are reinforced and securely locked. I have calculated the shortest escape route from every room in my house. I carry on my person at all times a set of lockpicks, a flashlight, and a multitool. In my bag I have various other essentials, including but not limited to a change of clothes, my netbook and its charger, the charger for my cell phone, an emergency supply of food and hand warmers, and a blanket. My valuables are hidden carefully and elaborately disguised. I have a wall safe filled with counterfeit money and fool's gold. I have the ability to completely disappear at less than a day's notice. In an emergency I could disappear in an hour.
Hidden in various locations in areas with which I'm extensively familiar throughout the country are emergency supply caches, storing several things that will be useful in the short, medium, and long term, including weapons, medical supplies, and non-perishable food items, but also communications equipment and power generators.
I am healthy and physically fit. I have spent years practicing various skills that could help me survive in any situation. I have developed skills which will always be marketable in a variety of situations. I can take command just as easily as I can blend into the background.
I've always been prepared. I've always known that if anything was ever to go wrong I'd be able to survive it, and not just scraping by, either.
I just always thought that when the end came, it'd be something I'd want to survive.
I always thought the Devil was supposed to come to you in moments of desperation, when everything was going wrong and your only desire seemed utterly out of reach, or at least when some new idea has taken hold--some lust for a hedonistic life that only the Father of Lies can provide. All it costs is your soul.
I've been happy lately. Or maybe content is the word--everything is going well and it seems like there is nothing that could possibly make it go wrong. There's always doubt, of course. The strange conviction that nothing lasts, which in many ways it doesn't. But even that--the doubt that has been my constant companion for more than twenty years--is just a whisper now.
And last night I came home drunk and happy and put some music on and lay down on my bed to relax and enjoy myself, and the Angel of the Bottomless Pit appeared before me. He smiled at me. I told him I was happy where I was, and I didn't need his help with anything.
He smiled again. And then I knew, he wasn't here to tempt me with anything more than what I had--he was here to tempt me with exactly what I had. I could keep it forever. The doubt would go away. I could be happy and never have to worry that something would go wrong. It never would.
And then there was a contract, and me holding a pen, and I bit my lip to stifle a cry as I signed.
The weather started reflecting my mood a few weeks ago. Or that's when I started noticing, anyway. It sounds like it would be kind of nice, and it was at first. There is nothing worse than having it be sunny and cheerful when you are in a nasty mood. A thunderstorm when you are in a particular frame of mind can be the best thing that happens to you.
Except my mood is pretty mercurial these days, if you will pardon the word here. The weather can't stay stable for five minutes anymore. And I can't stand when the weather's unstable like that, so my mood is just getting worse and the storms keep coming harder. It's starting to take its toll. I'm wet and cold all the time now. I hate going out, and when I do I end up soaked, even if it's not raining.
I've started trying to keep my mood stable, but I'm not so good at that. I read and watch and listen to all the things I like best, but those are such a mess of emotions that it doesn't help. I try to stick to happy things. I'm talking to my girlfriend, who is in Paris for the semester, every day and I am desperately trying to be cheerful, and get her to be, too, but she's just confused. She's accusing me of making fun. And each time, the bright sunny day is a downpour of rain by the time I get my shoes on.
Death kissed me again before I boarded my flight. And then she gave me a look which would have been unsettling at any other time. She didn't accompany me, but I guess she was always there in a way. And then I was home again.
Home. I use the word like it means something. I guess the lab was home now--everything else was barely recognizable. But it was familiar, now. It was clean and untouched by the ravages of war, famine, and pestilence. Famine was still there. And news was still coming in of everything I'd done.
And we were, somehow, happy here. We had everything we could ever want, or need. The world was destroying itself, now, and willingly throwing itself at our feet, while we just strung them along. And I really did have everything I ever wanted. I just wanted to be happy. I didn't know how much it would cost.
And I'm not sure if I'd do it different.
I'm not sure how to describe Death. I want to say "forbiddingly beautiful" but that doesn't actually touch on the specifics of how tall she is, or how she has legs that seem to go on forever--literally--or how she has a knowing look, the sort of look that says she knows the only thing that's ultimately important about anyone. I guess that's probably true. The rest is just killing time.
She took me on a tour of the cities I'd ruined--my words, not hers--and I spent the time in between stops flirting with Death. She wasn't exactly receptive, but I got the feeling she wasn't one for warmth and affection. Her kiss was cold and passionless and utterly electrifying. I can't remember a single thing she said to me, or if she ever said anything at all.
At every ruined city there were throngs of supplicants, begging me for a cure, or to help them or their families. And those few who retained power would ask me for help restoring order and stopping the riots. I was hailed as a savior everywhere I went, while under my orders people were starving to death and dying of plague and killing each other and trying to become kings and queens in this new hell.
And at every city I promised deliverance, while Death stood behind me, silently watching, and I knew even as I spoke she was stalking the city streets. I used words I knew weren't really mine, but I'd taken and made my own. I talked about saving people from themselves--giving them what they really needed instead of what they thought they wanted--being a man of action when the rest of history was just men of words. And they cheered and cheered.
Then the tour ended and I had nothing left to do but go home.
What I did was something like this: a third of the world's waters were poisoned. So were most of the food stockpiles that managed to survive being purchased by me. It was infectious. It spread quickly. I'd say it all looked natural, but at this point everyone knew that the end had been at hand for a very long time now. And it seemed like only a few days later that one of the scientists still at the lab announced that we had a vaccine. I would be working on a cure, the announcement said.
I didn't ask Pestilence if she'd done this. Instead I said something like, "This had to happen, didn't it?"
"You didn't tell me your real name, did you?"
"No. I think you probably know it by now, though." There was a pause. "And Rob?"
"You didn't tell me yours, either."
She lit a sugar cube on fire and dropped it into a glass of absinthe, which I poured a shot of water over and raised to her. "Still. I had a nice time this week."
Saying something like the love we made that night was an experience unlike any I'd had before or since sort of loses its impact when you realize there isn't a whole lot of "since" left in the world, but that's the best way to describe it. And of course by now nobody needed to tell me that there was still someone I hadn't met.
My flight left at noon. I had to return to Famine, of course, but there was a stop I needed to make.
Pestilence was actually very sweet, and her eyes were a very beautiful shade of green. We spent most of the week together drunk on absinthe and not getting any work done. It was a very nice time.
The work that needed doing, she said one evening, carefully pouring water over a slotted spoon, was fairly simple. She wanted access to my distributorships. In exchange for a negligible cut of the profits she could provide total market dominance--make it so that the entire world was dependent on my products. They'd see me as the savior of mankind. All she needed was access to the only functioning machine left in the country.
I signed off on it without much of a thought. I guess I should have thought about it more, but I knew what I was doing. We sent out the memo to all employees, and spent the rest of the week drunk out of our minds. The fate of the world was the last thing on my mind. We talked about a lot of things. I remember one about the inefficacy of language.
"People have been talking for thousands of years and they've never accomplished anything with it," she was saying. "You can't even convince your lady not to leave by talking."
"Here, we're actually doing something. You're the first man in history to actually do something, do you know that?"
I believed her.
The idea of people knowing what they wanted was the only thing I thought of in those days. There were all sorts of things they kept asking for--free distribution of the resources I'd bought up, or at least open access to it. Sometimes they just asked for more than they needed to feed their families, or refused to pay the prices we were asking. As if they didn't understand that this was a fucking valuable thing. You don't give it away for nothing. We could not afford generosity--others would starve. All because they thought they knew best what they wanted.
Meanwhile the nations that remained kept buying the new products we were putting out, and Famine managed to secure some luxuries for those of us still working at the lab. She soothed some of my fears that we didn't have enough to feed everyone--it's important that we be fair, she said. We can't afford to play favorites. What if we picked the wrong people? What if we helped the wrong people survive the apocalypse?
She was the first person to use the word. I would have happily spent the rest of the end with her if I could, but business called, and, content that she could manage the distribution of the remaining food supply, I had to book a flight out to meet someone that War described over the phone as "a very dear friend."
Famine was a goth girl, studying psychology, working at the lab as a research assistant for the summer. She brought a little life to the place, mostly by being loud and enthusiastic, and I appreciated that. It was one of those things where I don't even remember when we became a thing, but once it happened it felt like it had always been there, and we'd work all day and drink wine all night.
This was when we were increasingly becoming one of the only places left in the world with any money or influence. War had ravaged the rest of the planet. There were lots of people still alive, but resources were becoming scarce as fallout and more conventional deaths destroyed a lot of farmland and other such places.
When she was drunk, Famine talked a lot about how people don't understand what they want or what they need. She did a lot of research in fields like the self and identity and self-awareness, and it always turned out nobody actually knows much about anything. They couldn't tell you why they liked a movie, for instance, or why they broke up with their girlfriend. They only come up with justification after.
It was nothing I hadn't heard before, but she had a way of saying it that made me think. And by winter I had bought the rest of the world's resources. She volunteered to manage it while I continued the important work of managing the technology that the most important lab in the world was churning out.
I barely cared when she notified me that everyone who might be called our rivals had gone bankrupt, unless I offered to buy them up instead.
Rich, and powerful. I was never interested in power, which is probably why I was so perfect for this, at least as far as War was concerned. We worked for several months, after hours, and eventually cutting into our work days. She provided me with anything I'd need, and I never bothered to ask how, and she never presented me with a bill because this would recoup all of our costs eventually, wouldn't it?
When we had a working prototype, every world leader in the country contacted me asking for it, offering me more money than I'd ever really known existed, power, titles, prestige, wealth. Always just me--War was very insistent that I take the credit for this. She didn't want the limelight and anyway I'd done all the work, she said.
And I told everyone the same thing, that we were working on mass-production. I figured that if everyone had one it wouldn't cause any problems. And meanwhile War was always coming up with new ideas and running them past me, little improvements on the design for the future. "Just think," she said. "In a few short months we'll have made the world a better place!"
A few short months happened. We built a secret lab, sold thousands of the new devices to anyone who wanted one and had the money. She did a short tour abroad, demonstrating the product. And then the bombs fell, and suddenly the lab was the only safe place on earth, and I found myself the most powerful man on the planet, with War leading up the increasingly ineffectual peacekeeping efforts.
It's the sort of thing that goes to a man's head, and suddenly he believes that he can actually save the world he's just destroyed.
War was a quiet girl, actually. Neither loud nor particularly violent, or even argumentative. She just had this unshakeable conviction and this quiet sort of confidence, and it was hard not to admire that sort of thing. The first time I really talked to her outside of work, I took her to a nice Italian place outside of town, and we ate too much and we drank Merlot and she asked me questions that I figured were innocuous. She probably knew the answers already, and here I've already forgotten the questions.
I didn't think of it as flattery when she spent the night, in that quiet, certain way she had, telling me how much she admired my research and was so happy she got to work with me. When she said something she had a way of making it seem like fact. And we retired back to my place for a nightcap, and she was halfway through her gin and tonic when she finally got the nerve to ask if I wanted to work with her on this idea she had.
I was hesitant to commit to anything outside of work, but she went on to explain. It was possibly the best idea I had ever heard, something I put up to the alcohol at the time. Still, I agreed to work on it. If we pulled this off we'd be rich for the rest of our lives.
I didn't actually mean to bring about the apocalypse. I mean, I wasn't trying to. I don't know if you really can. It is probably too late now, but for what it's worth, to whoever is still reading this, if there's anyone left to read, I'm sorry. I don't have a good excuse, except that it probably would have happened anyway, just a bit later. Maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, maybe a few years. Who knows? Maybe we would have had time to prepare. Maybe we could have changed things. I guess it doesn't really matter now. You can hate me for it if you like. I probably deserve it.
The thing is, nothing seemed too unreasonable about anything that happened. The four of them, I mean. They made requests, I did what I could to help. I mean, wouldn't anyone? They were nice enough. It was never unreasonable. It was always entirely within my power. I didn't think anything would come of it. We all make mistakes, right? Do people still say that sort of thing?
I didn't mean for it to end this way. I don't feel like I was really given a choice. I didn't have all the information at the time. But this is what happened, more or less.
As soon as the clocks struck midnight, the world started ending. Waters turning to blood, a star called Wormwood falling from the sky, all of it. The apocalypse came and the world went to hell and there was really nothing we could do about it.
Some of the survivors all banded together such as we could, away from all the cities and the action, hoping no one will notice. We're not really trying to rebuild civilization while everything is still all blood and bitter water and golden censers, but we kind of are, in a sense. It's not much but maybe when it's all over we'll be able to pick up the pieces.
That's years down the road. Right now we're just trying to survive. Or we should be. Making sure we have food to last, making sure we can defend ourselves, making sure we can pack up and leave if something happens. We have to be on the run. I think the second beast has risen from the earth now. We have to be vigilant and work hard and prepare.
I understand that. It's just, there's this girl I met here who was from Brooklyn originally, and she's pretty cute, and just because the world is over is no excuse to not try to do things right. I took her on something kind of like a date, such as it is, and I made her laugh, and it was the prettiest sound I've heard in this apocalyptic wasteland. We sat on the hill and watched stars falling from the sky and smiting ruin upon the earth. For a minute it was almost okay that the end was upon us. I went through hell to hear that laugh.
They invented a pill that cures regret. My doctor prescribed it to me as soon as it came out, and I was happy to comply. With one pill I forgot all of my old girlfriends and all the stupid things I'd said and done--or, not quite forgot. I can still remember, of course. But I don't think about it anymore, and when I remember it I don't feel anything. I'm not happy or sad. It's the same way you'd remember what street you live on. Just a simple fact.
And when I start getting those pangs of nostalgia, or find myself thinking of her lips on my neck or her hands around my waist, it's another pill and those thoughts go away. My memory retention is just fine, and so long as I am taking them regularly I never have an errant regret. I am a perfectly happy and functional person.
Except I can't maintain a relationship anymore.
I've tried a few times now. It always ends with me just never thinking about her. Even if I like her and am perfectly nice to her. Once she's out of sight nothing ever makes me think of her. If for some reason someone brings her up there is no sense of obligation. It's just a fact--oh yes, I am in a relationship.
They usually say that I am too emotionally distant, or that I am not very thoughtful. I act like I don't care. Or, most often, that I'm so inconsistent. One minute I'm caring and loving and whatever and the next it's like she doesn't exist. Which is probably accurate.
But the pills do what they're supposed to. It's only when I forget to take them that I start wondering if maybe I should stop, if it's taken something important from me. And then it's another pill and the idea has left my mind entirely.