The car’s tires crunched on the gravel road’s shoulder as he pulled off to the side. The radio, tuned to KDKA rock, had paused for a very special news bulletin, then shut off as he twisted the key in the ignition and extracted it. Richard looked around, the sky was dark, he could tell the stars were brighter already, even half-blind from the console lights as he was. He looked over to Janet in the passenger seat, she was looking toward the slight hill, over which he could hear people talking through her open window.
“I think this is the place,” Richard said as he popped open his car door, pushing against gravity from the angle of the road.
“I think so too,” Janet said, and he slammed the door closed and rounded the back of the car to the trunk.
“Whoa!” she let out as he opened the trunk, and looking around the car, he could see that her door had gotten away from her and was bouncing against the hinge, fully open. She looked back at him and giggled, he smiled and reached into the trunk for their fold-up chairs. He’d bought them specifically for this, and their red, white, and blue webbing flashed back against the ceiling light as he managed to haul them out by main force. They’d somehow gotten tangled up together, he’d have to fix that, but until then, he just pushed them together tightly and closed the door with his other hand.
“You alright?” Janet asked as she came around the side of the car.
“Yeah, they’re just all mangled is all,” Richard said back, hoisting the tangle of aluminum tubing and webbing up to eye level.
“We can get them apart once we find Josh and Jeanie,” Richard responded, and Janet nodded her head. He clicked the button on his car key and heard the locks behind him ka-chunk closed.
Freshly dazzled from the ceiling light, it was hard for Richard to make out where any of the voices were coming from ahead of them as they crested the small embankment. The warm Florida breeze played across his button up short sleeved shirt and pushed against what was left of the hair on the top of his head. He self-consciously brushed the long, thin strands back with the others, always afraid of the wind leaving him with one of those iconic combover hair disasters.
“Can you see them?” he asked.
“Not yet,” Janet replied beside him, her head was turning back and forth. She pulled the purse at her side open and fished around inside for her phone, which she turned on.
“Gah! I’m never going to be able to see it,” she said as the strong white light lit up her face. She tapped around for a second, then held the phone up to her ear. Further down the field they could hear a ringtone start up, then cut off.
“Hi, yeah we’re here, can you see us?” Janet waved the phone over her head a couple times then brought it back down to her ear. “Yeah, I see you now, be right over.” A woman about a hundred feet away was waving her hands over her head, but Richard couldn’t make out her features.
“This way,” Janet said, and walked down the other side of the embankment, Richard brought the tangled chairs behind her.
“Sorry,” he said, as he accidentally bumped into a seated couple on a blanket. His eyesight was getting better, and he saw a shifting pale shape sitting beside the couple, and heard the signature far-off echoey voice as he passed by. Janet seemed to be having a better time of it, and he tried to stick closely to her heels as she wound left and right through the crowd, some in lawn chairs, some sitting on blankets.
“Hey!” A woman’s voice up ahead, Jeanie, shouted out, and Janet went in for a hug. Josh got up from his lawn chair beside her, switched the can of beer to his left hand and extended his right. Richard met him halfway in the shake, Josh’s hand cold and clammy from the drink.
“You got a pretty good spot,” Richard said after pumping twice. His vision was coming back enough to see Josh smile in front of him, the field of people and spectral outlines extending out for a couple hundred more feet.
“Yeah, we’ve been here since five,” Josh said, Richard could hear the pride in his voice. “I almost forgot the ice for the cooler on the way over,” he motioned to the big rolling cooler beside him, which Richard was sure contained at least two six packs, and perhaps a bottle of white for Jeanie.
Richard looked down at the tangle of aluminum pipes in his hands and started turning it this way and that, trying to get the two chairs unhooked. After a twist and a tug, they came apart, one of them falling open, and he grunted as he put one chair beside Jeanie and the other beside Josh, forming an oblong square.
“I see you found chairs, very patriotic,” Josh teased.
“Yeah yeah, they were on sale,” Richard responded. So were the flags, plates, and napkins left over from the fourth of July, but not the fireworks. Those were marked up to twice their normal price today.
“Nothing wrong with a little pride in the great old U. S. of A” Josh said as he turned his chair around and sat back down. Richard lowered himself into the new chair cautiously, he wasn’t sure if was pre-broken or not. But it held his weight, and he leaned back into it.
Josh leaned over and popped the lid to the cooler. “Beer?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Richard said, and plunged his hand into the mound of crushed ice, fishing around for the telltale smooth side of a can. After a couple seconds he found one, and, grateful enough to get his hand out of the cold, he didn’t even check the label before popping the top. At the first sip he knew: light beer. Awful.
“Have you gotten orientated?” Richard asked, and pointed up into the sky, circling his finger around.
“Sure have,” Josh said, and brought a chunk of rectangular plastic out of his pocket. “Picked this puppy up at the sporting goods store, last one,” he said, and unhinged the top. It was a compass, the kind boy scouts used with the wire and the lens. The digits were all printed in luminol, bright green in the darkness, but not bright enough to destroy his rapidly developing night vision.
“I clocked it at just over that water tower when we got in,” Josh pointed into the distance, past the field of people, and Richard could just make out the water tower against the light pollution from Cape Coral.
“Just over it?” Richard asked. There were words now, words they used casually that they’d never heard before. Elevation, azimuth, everyone was talking about them, getting their coordinates locked in, and Josh knew exactly what he was talking about.
“If you put your thumb out,” Josh said, “at arm’s length, that far over the water tower.” Richard saw him stick his arm out, and overcoming his feelings of foolishness, did the same, placing it sideways on the top of the tower. He didn’t see anything there, but then again, they said he wouldn’t. Proxima Centauri was too small, too dim, to see with the naked eye. He was sure someone was set up somewhere with a telescope that cost a good chunk of change that could see it even now. He’d watch the video tomorrow, online.
“Are your parents coming?” Richard asked, remembering the nearly transparent shape he’d walked past on his way over. Josh’s mother had died three years ago, leaving his father a widower, in a way.
“No, they’re watching on the TV,” Josh responded. They sat silent for a bit, listening to Janet and Jeanie talk beside them, watching the top of the water tower in the distance.
“What time is it?” Richard asked.
“I’ve got an alarm,” Josh responded, and Richard grunted. Everyone would, he was sure, except him. He hadn’t thought to set up an alarm, which seemed silly now. He’d lose all his night vision if he looked at his phone.
Sitting in that chair, with Josh beside him, a cold can of beer in his hand, brought Richard swimming back to the college days, where they’d struck this same pose countless times. Then, Josh hadn’t preferred light beer, and both their waistlines had room to expand. He remembered walking into the common room with the TV, the whole floor crowded around it. They’d all had computers, they could watch it live from their rooms, but they’d drawn together, not wanting to be alone as the news came in steady waves.
“Do you remember Henry?” Josh asked from beside him. Richard thought his mind must have taken him to the same place, and a smile pulled his lips back.
“Yeah, yeah I remember Henry,” Richard responded.
“That was really his time to shine, huh,” Josh asked back.
Henry had been the only astrophysics major on the floor, and after the initial broadcast cut off, he’d been the one to which they’d all turned in the only series of lectures that Richard had willingly attended. He remembered his legs cramping under him while he sat on the ground among all the other guys on the floor while Henry paced back and forth, explaining terms like “false vacuum” and “nucleation”.
Now even children had a very rudimentary understanding of these terms, terms that had, until eight years ago, been entirely theoretical, phd level stuff. Richard remembered seeing asteroid movies before, apocalyptic movies like Deep Impact or Armageddon where the government scientists kept the whole thing secret until it was too late, or they had a solution. They’d turned out to be surprisingly accurate. He looked to the stars above him, thinking. He couldn’t remember any apocalyptic movies coming out since then.
“How’s work been going,” Josh asked, nudging the topic subtly away from the subject at hand.
“Oh, it’s been good,” Richard responded. He worked as an IT consultant for a natural gas company, which had its perks and downsides. Perk: he got to work inside all day in the air conditioning. Downside: he was bored to tears past ten AM.
“You?” Richard asked Josh. They’d become friends during their freshman year at Florida Gulf Coast University, from being on the same floor. Josh had dropped out his junior year and now managed a PetCo in town.
“Same shit, different day,” Josh said, and Richard chuckled. They’d stayed friends even after Josh left, it was easy since neither one of them moved away from their hometown, Cape Coral, and Richard owned a boat. It was nothing fancy, something he’d bought with his excess beer money, more like an aluminum skiff than a proper boat, but it’d been enough to carry two young men as they fished the shore of the nearby lake.
As the years went on, Richard and Josh added to their tackle boxes, and their waistlines. First Richard got married, then Josh. Josh had confided in him that they were trying for a kid, but Richard wasn’t there yet. Not yet, but soon, he thought, and looked over at Janet.
She was beautiful, he thought, her voice and the outline of her hair against the light pollution from the horizon marked her out clear as day. He did want kids, but he couldn’t imagine having them while still working the same job his dad had. He wanted to move up, to advance, to be different, to not be the same dad his dad was, and working the same job was just too close for comfort. Maybe next year, he thought, watching her talk to Jeanie, laugh against the dark sky. Maybe he’d be ready then.
He’d heard there was a baby boom going on, biggest there ever was apparently. He looked out to the field between him and the horizon, on a few of the blankets dotted here and there were ghostly outlines, the slight breeze sometimes brought him snatches of echoey conversation. Was this any kind of world to bring a child into? Maybe not, but they couldn’t just lay down and die either.
The initial headline was unbelievable, that’s what’d gotten him out of his room and down to the common area. There was, what he’d thought at the time, a suit, on the television, standing behind a podium with a blue backdrop. The seal of the president of the United States hung on the front, the man was just clearing his throat.
“One year and three months ago,” he’d said. That was the moniker for the speech, the speech that broke the news that they’d never known, that one year and three months ago they’d been about two years away from total extinction. The asteroid Apophis, which had been flagged for extreme impact danger in the past, had been measured to have a 95% probability of impacting Earth on its next go around the sun. No one even suspected, there were no conspiracy websites shouting the truth into the void, nothing. Some government funded astronomy unit discovered the possibility and it rose up through the chain of command at the highest levels of secrecy.
Richard got up from the lawn chair, gripping his perspiring beer in his hand, and walked over to where Janet and Jeanie were talking. Josh stayed sitting in the other chair, looking toward the tip of the water tower, most of the way done with his first can.
The key word was “was”, there “was” an existential threat to the survival of humanity. If Apophis impacted, we’d see an extinction event on the scale of the dinosaurs, and the human race, including most of the animals on the surface of the planet, wouldn’t make it twenty years in the altered climate afterwards.
Richard walked up to Janet and Jeanie as they burst out in shared laughter and he wrapped a hand around Janet’s waist.
“Oooh, hey!” she said playfully. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, nothing much,” he said, “just thinking.”
“Don’t try too hard, you might blow something,” Jeanie said and laughed. Richard chuckled, a million miles away. He’d met Janet five years later, five years after the bright lights punctuated the sky like a silent Fourth of July fireworks show. You could watch it progress; one kid on his hall, he forgot the name, said he saw it start at the horizon. It appeared as a circle of bright flashes, marching up the sky toward the sun, growing smaller and dimmer as they went. That’s when he’d heard about it, in four minutes it was finished, unviewable behind the bright disc of the sun, and he’d been on the computer trying to find out what was going on. Richard thought it was some kind of arial test, some military thing, the news was slow to update with anything. That’s when he’d heard the TV cranked up to full volume in the common room and made his way out. He didn’t want to be alone.
“How are things?” he asked Jeanie, his arm still around Janet’s waist.
“Oh you know, same old same old. I’ve got a new manager, what an asshole!” Jeanie said, but Ramsay barely heard her. His arm tightened around Janet’s waist as the words echoed in his memory.
“To face this existential threat, a device was developed.” He’d noticed it at the time, and the words would be much scrutinized later, that the speaker had used the passive voice instead of the active voice. Who developed the device? Who knows, he was saying, but not me. Later we found out who developed the device, a cadre of scientists on an inflated emergency budget; it was secretly launched directly toward the sun in a commandeered rocket with an ion drive. A second device, on a second rocket, flew out to meet Apophis, or close enough to the asteroid to be far enough away from us by the time the first rocket reached the halfway point.
Jeanie went on, but Ramsay was watching the replay of the speech in his mind. Later on Henry had filled them in on the technical jargon, but he remembered the young physicist gasping while they were watching, the first sign that something was terribly wrong.
“It was determined that the plan with the most chance of success…” The most chance of success, even then they didn’t know if it would work or not. One device sent toward the sun, the other into dark space, if either of them failed then it was sayonara Earth. But not really, he thought; Earth would still be here, we wouldn’t. Even the planet would have survived if we’d failed. That was nice to think.
Jeanie’s complaints washed over him as he remembered hearing the words “metastable” and “vacuum decay” for the first time. That’s when Henry had gasped. The first device would freeze in a metastable quantum state everything in its radius, about 60% of the distance between Earth and the Sun. The second device, and here was the kicker, would trigger the false vacuum decay, an event in which all matter is destroyed on the forefront of a wave traveling at the speed of light away from the unfortunate nucleation point, as the quantum vacuum fell down to it’s true base state.
He remembered the hokey graphic, which was later jazzed up by Hollywood studios, of two expanding bubbles, the first enfolding Earth, the Moon, and the Sun, then stopping. The second washing over the first and expanding ever outward, the little labeled dot “Apophis” flaring out as the wave progressed. The animation stopped there, of course it did, Richard wouldn’t know what the repercussions were until Henry clued them all in, which was about an hour before the rest of the world would know, when CNN finally wrangled up some astrophysicists on panel.
“And how about you?” Jeanie asked. Richard noticed her wine glass was mostly empty.
“Can I top you up?” Richard asked, and Jeanie laughed unselfconsciously.
“Why sure!” and Richard reached down to the wine bottle on the ground with the cork half stuck in. It was hard in the twilight, but he eventually clinked the mouth of the bottle on her glass and started pouring. He could tell Janet was watching him.
“How about you?” he asked her as Jeanie took her glass away and started to drink.
“I’m alright,” she said, lacking mirth. “Are you alright?”
“Just thinking,” Richard repeated, but Janet got him, she always did. That was why he loved her so much. He pulled her in for a kiss, rubbed her back, then walked back to his chair beside Josh. The sound of a cracking can of beer worked like echolocation, and Richard found the edge of his chair again no problem.
“Ahhh,” he let out a sigh as he settled into the plastic webbing. He heard the liquid sloshing of beer exiting a can beside him, and looked up into the bright lane of the Milky Way above. It really was beautiful, when you sat and looked.
Josh burped softly beside him, then asked “you getting all nostalgic?”
Richard looked, trying to pick out individual points of light in the galaxy. “Yeah, I guess I am.” He could hear Josh spinning the can around in his hand slowly, each individual finger sticking as he spider-crawled over the surface.
They sat in silence for a second before Josh admitted “me too.” Richard couldn’t see Josh clearly in the darkness, but he pictured that they were both looking out to the top of the water tower, where they couldn’t see a star.
“Do you think we’re evil,” Josh began on that oft-repeated question, “we’re just too bad to exist?”
Richard considered it for the thousandth time. Besides a small minority of members from scattered ecological groups, no one had blamed the government for its response. Everyone wanted to live, no one wanted to die. And besides, who knew if there even was anyone else out there. The SETI program was shut down due to lack of funding the next year, no one wanted to hear from E.T. right before the hatchet fell.
Henry had explained it to them thusly: it was like a bubble popping. Once it started, you couldn’t stop it, it would go all the way around until it finished popping. This… device they’d talked about, was like sticking your bubble blower to the side of the bubble then popping the bubble outside it. Sometimes the thin film of soap water stayed intact inside the loop, sometimes it didn’t. It seemed, since they were still talking about it, that it had. But it wouldn’t stop in the solar system, no, it wouldn’t even stop in the galaxy. What had been started just minutes earlier would ripple through the entire universe, destroying everything in its path. From now on, it was just them, the Moon, and the Sun.
“No,” Richard responded with a sigh. He’d had as many different answers for the question over as many years since it’d happened. “But maybe we’re selfish. I don’t think it’s a sin to want to live.”
“Hmm,” Josh grunted beside him, and all at once a hundred different alarms rang out in the darkness, the nearest one in Josh’s pocket.
“One minute till,” Josh said, scooting back in his seat. Richard looked back to call Janet, but she was already on her way over, her wine glass still mostly full in her hand.
“Hey,” she said, and the lawn chair creaked beside him as she sat down in it. He held his beer can out to her, and she must have seen it in the wan light of the city, because she clinked her glass against it. Jeanie sat down beside Josh, they made a weird quadrangle, all facing in the same general direction.
“Where’s it going to be,” Janet asked, and now it was Richard’s turn to explain.
“Do you see that water tower,” he asked, and pointed to the horizon.
“Yeah,” she said, joining his outstretched finger, wanting to make sure.
“Just a thumb’s width above that,” Richard said, “that’s what Josh told me.”
“Okay,” she said, and let her arm down. He reached out and grabbed her shoulder, slowly massaging the muscle underneath. There was a smattering of screen lights as some people pulled their phones out to silence them, the field seemed to light up with a plane of stars of its own. The white lights of the screens highlighted the apparitions sitting on blankets, standing beside chairs, which had almost been invisible in the darkness.
What they hadn’t expected, Richard remembered, what no one had expected, were the ghosts. It happened immediately, and within the first day there was another emergency announcement pertaining to the “lingering of the recently departed.” It was as simple as that, no fanfare like the asteroids in the asteroid belt lighting up with their last gasps as their mass was converted to a final flash of light. When a person died, a ghostly shape that looked just like them would rise up out of the body, and just stay here. Many people were reunited with loved ones they thought forever lost to the fog of alzheimers; no matter how grievous your injuries, your soul came back intact. They couldn’t touch, they couldn’t taste, but they could talk, in their own weird echoey way. And as far as anyone could tell, they weren’t going away either.
No one knew what to do with the babies and children, those too young to understand or recognize what had happened. It was a problem Richard didn’t like to think about, or he’d start doubting having a child at all again. There were almost 25 million ghosts in America now, at first legally dubious, it only took the death of a wealthy political donor to codify the Rights of the Departed into law. Now they even had a ghostly supreme court member, which gave a confusing meaning to “lifetime appointment”.
Why they stayed now, no one knew. People’s best guess was that the reaction, in addition to destroying all matter in the universe in a slow outgoing wave, had also killed God. The idea that there was a God, that there was an afterlife, wasn’t so surprising to many in the world, but the realization that they’d exchanged this life for that one was. This side effect had produced the most gnashing of teeth; no tears for the poor aliens out in space who wouldn’t even know what hit them, but what about grandma, what about my inheritance?
“Five,” someone in the crowd said. Richard thought of the wavefront as a wall of solid light rushing toward the tiny faint star.
“Four,” more people took up the chant this time, as Richard imagined the star’s last moments, the oncoming wave of vacuum collapse invisible.
“Three,” he reached out to Janet, grabbing her arm.
“Two,” the crowd resonated with the chant as she grabbed him back across the chairs.
“One,” everyone was looking at the same point in the sky, everyone was waiting. Richard and Janet held each other tight across the gap between their chairs, holding their breaths.
There! Richard thought, as a point of light flared in the sky, right where Josh said it would be. It was the first and last time any human would see Proxima Centauri with the naked eye, and in less than a second the flash was over. It hadn’t been bright enough to light up the ground, but for just a brief second it had been the brightest star in the sky.
The group on the lawn let out a collective breath, and then the first firework went up. It was a red, white, and blue sparkler, shooting high into the sky, where it twinkled out, before it exploded a second later.
Then another, then another, lit from the field they were on. A deep booming sound made Richard turn around, someone had let off a mortar style firework about a mile away, it’s bright sphere of light shooting out in every direction. The light lit up the crowd with blue from this direction, red from this direction, casting weird purplish shadows on the grass around them as the city in front of them erupted with firework light as well.
Janet turned back to look at him, and they locked eyes. She got up, he followed, and they embraced in the middle of the field, for all the world like the last two people on Earth. He breathed in her perfume, the smell of conditioner in her hair, and thought yes, yes he did want to have children. They’d traded the universe for their lives, nothing would ever happen out there again, it would be stuck at base state for eternity, like an unwound clock. Suddenly, the thought of watching his own child grow up and move away into their own little slice of the universe, the great West maybe, seemed like the only thing that could hold him together. And then what, they would grow old, die, and still be here. Forever.
Janet released the pressure in her hug and so did he, they looked at each other and Richard said “let’s go home,” having a feeling he knew what they’d both want to do once the door closed.
“Yeah,” she said, and he saw her smile in the flickering red light from a sparkler behind him. He leaned over and picked up his chair, folding it up on his leg, she did the same.
They said goodbye to Josh and Jeanie, who both looked similarly deflated as the result of their early night’s heavy drinking. None of them were young anymore, that was for sure. As Richard and Janet turned back to walk toward the car, a ghostly silhouette sitting on the blanket two rows back catching Richard’s eye from the ground, Josh shouted out from behind them, slightly slurred, “don’t forget, ninety five days! It’s gonna be a two’fer!”