The universe is a big place.
Our little planet orbits an ordinary star near the edge of a common galaxy, much like billions of other galaxies. The universe is full of countless more stars, planets, asteroids, comets, nebulae, quasars, black holes and immeasurable amounts of empty space. It’s all so big that, in an absolute measurement, the planet Earth may as well not even exist. The same could be said for the beings that live on Earth. We are a speck of dust lost in an endless sea.
Yet for all that, humankind is more and greater than all the space that stretches through infinity. We are intelligent, self-aware. We communicate, create, explore and love. All these things, these traits that make humanity so important despite being so small, are most easily symbolized with one human invention. This invention was of particular importance to a first-year student at a literary school.
The catalyst that allowed our species to climb up from the caves and the oceans, the achievement that enabled us to rule our planet, was that of language. When people could talk, exchange ideas, write those ideas down for later recall, the path was set for we to become the most accomplished beings in the known universe.
Such was the tragedy of ACFP, the anti-chromosomal formative pathogen, commonly known as Homewrecker’s disease. When humanity dies, our words will go with us. The ability to communicate, trade and store ideas, would perish along with the race that created it.
For people like me, those of the final generation, everything we said and heard would be among our dying words.
I was helpless, turned blubbering and useless by my own angst. Lorelei held me tight as I cried and cried, until there were no more tears. We sat in bed together, and I held onto the feel of her breath, the feel of her heartbeat, meager proof that we weren’t dead already.
“What happened?” she whispered at long last.
I almost smiled. She didn’t ask what was wrong until after I had cried myself out, just like a mother who insists on bandaging a scraped knee before she cares about how the wound happened. Lorelei was returning the favor, since I did the same for her last night.
“Ericka,” I said, drying my face and blowing my nose on a tissue. “When I took her phone to her, we sat down and talked. She told me about her boyfriend and....”
“And Homewrecker’s,” said Lorelei.
I nodded, nuzzling my face into her. “Yeah.”
Then something amazing happened. Lorelei started talking, more than a few words at a time, and without me prompting for every answer. She kept her voice low and cool, as if she were trying to ration her voice.
“Look at this,” she said, holding up that French book. “You remember what this is?”
“Somebody’s biography?” I said.
“Biography of deterministic philosopher, Pierre-Simon Laplace. Do you know what determinism is?”
I shook my head. Lorelei set the book on her lap, then took my hand in hers as she explained.
“Determinism is the idea that, if you have a complete picture of the entire universe at any one time, you could use scientific and philosophical laws to predict what the universe will be at any time in the future, or retrodict it at any point in the past.”
“Wow,” I said. “Does that really work?”
“No. Some principles later were discovered that keep us from fully knowing the universe even now, let alone the past or future.” She looked into my eyes. “But wouldn’t it be nice if it were possible?”
I thought about that. The idea of having perfect knowledge of all history, both behind us and before us, sounded pretty boring. What was the fun of life if we knew everything right from the start?
Then again, it took a different meaning when I put myself in Lorelei’s place. Her life had been one of chaos. Not only did she suffer Homewrecker’s anxiety like everyone else, but she had been abused as a child. In her youth, every unknown was a likely source of pain. Anyone would hunger for reason, order and understanding, having grown up like that.
“I guess so, in some ways,” I said. “But not in others.”
“Too true, but it’s a soothing idea.”
“It doesn’t matter. We could sit here all night comforting each other and it wouldn’t change anything. We’re going to die some day, and there’s nothing left after us.”
“Hmm.” Lorelei scooted her butt down, laying back on the bed. She rested her head on the pillow, and pulled me down with her. “Lay with me.”
Despite being depressed, I noticed the innuendo. I matched Lorelei’s position so we lay side by side. My hand was still in hers, and she held it tight.
“Maggie, do you know about astronomy?”
“Just the stuff they teach us in grade school,” I said. “Why?”
“The sun.” She pointed one finger to the ceiling. “Up there somewhere.”
“What about it?”
“You know the sun won’t shine forever, right?”
“I guess so,” I said. “I heard that in like, five billion years or something, the sun will turn into a red giant and destroy everything inside the asteroid belt.”
“Much sooner than that,” said Lorelei. “As the sun ages, it burns nuclear fuel more quickly, which means that its output increases with time. In one billion years, maybe less, the sun will get so hot that it cooks all the water off the planet.”
“And that will kill us all.”
One billion was a huge number, but not unimaginable. Companies traded in billions of dollars every day. My tablet’s main processor did billions of calculations per second. The Earth itself had already been around for billions of years. It was easy to think of one billion – just take a thousand, multiply that by a thousand, then multiply that by another thousand.
“A billion years,” I said, pulling our hands down to rest on Lorelei’s thigh. “That doesn’t sound like very long.”
“It’s not.” Lorelei rolled onto her side, so she could face me and hug me. “You and I have much less time than that. We’re going to live sixty, maybe seventy more years.”
I rolled onto my side, facing her and returning the hug. “And what will those lives be like? We’re the last ones. You, me, Cheryl and Bianca, other people our age. We’re the last kids anyone will ever have.”
“And, that means nothing we do will ever mean anything. We came to this school so we could grow up and get jobs as writers, but who cares if there’s no one to read our stuff?”
“Fallacy. Assumes you write for others. The person you write for is...,” she brought up a finger, touched the tip of it to my nose, “you.”
“But....” My eyes burned again. “But what—”
She pressed her finger to my lips, quieting me.
“Shh, listen to me,” she said. “Imagine if there were no Homewrecker’s. Imagine if the world were full of young people, and you lived a happy life writing things that people loved to read. What happens at the end of that life?” She hugged me closer, touched her forehead to mine. “You die, and you can’t take anything with you.”
“So what’s the point?” I said, my lips puckering against her finger. “Why even live?”
“You live for you.” She sniffled. “And, if you’ve got a little left over, live for me too.”
I lost it. The floodgates opened, and I started crying again. This time, I attacked Lorelei with every bit of my being. I hugged her, kissed her, felt all over her. We were both lucky to have our loved one there, making it easier to find our own reasons to live.
Lorelei posed a good question. What if Homewrecker’s had never existed?
I want to take the hypothetical idea a bit farther than she did. Let’s say that, some time in the next billion years, humanity finally masters space travel. We would leave our home planet, spread out into the galaxy, possibly colonize other worlds. Eventually Sol, the star that allowed humanity to come into being, would die out. By that time, the human race would have ensured its survival after the death of its home world. But what then?
The universe itself has a limited lifespan. After tens of billions of years, all stars will have burned out their fuel, leaving everything a cold and dead wasteland. That’s assuming the universe doesn’t undergo a great gravitational collapse some day, smashing all matter back into a mathematically dimensionless point. One way or another, the same conclusion is unavoidable. Mortal existence is temporary. Every person dies, and so will the world around us.
There might be life after death. Maybe God is waiting to welcome us into Heaven, but we can’t know that until we get there, so we can’t count on it in the meantime. Every person, in every minute of every day, faces the end of the world. It makes no difference whether it’s tomorrow or ten billion years from now.
That night I spent with Lorelei, the second of many nights we would spend together, helped me understand something important. When facing the end of the world, we must not despair. As my teacher put it, that’s letting Homewrecker’s win.
I had asked the question, if everything is going to die, then why live? The answer is obvious. We live to learn. We live to gain the best kind of wisdom, how to keep peace and love in our hearts.
After all, when the world is ending, that’s the best thing we can do.
Morning dawned on Sister Carissa Literary School for Girls. Students wake up, moved around in their dorms, cleaning themselves and getting ready for the day. The dining hall opened, and girls filed in for a good breakfast to start a day’s worth of learning. It was the second day of the school year, the day when classes would start on the meat of their subjects, and the students wanted to be ready.
One student in particular stood on the front steps of her dorm building. She stood with her fists on her hips, eyes closed, face turned toward the sky. Her clothes were new and clean. Her hair was freshly washed, still damp from the shower.
She breathed deep of the cool morning air, felt the sunlight on her face. The feel of the place permeated her, and she caught a glimpse of her next six years here. There would be pains and frustrations, upset and heartache. But more, there would be learning, growth and love.
“I’m going to enjoy this,” I said, taking another deep breath. It wasn’t a prediction, but a promise. I was going to enjoy my time at this school. No matter if I graduated in six years, or if the school was destroyed ten minutes from now by freak meteorite impact. This time was mine.
“Well, good morning there,” said a passerby.
I opened my eyes, saw Ericka walking past the dorm on her way to the dining hall. She stopped to greet me.
“Morning!” I said, giving her a wave. “You feeling any better?”
That was a loaded question. Only she and I understood what I was asking.
“Yeah,” she said, then lowered her voice. “He and I talked on the phone after you left. He said that, since it meant so much to me, he would still marry me.”
“Oh my,” I smiled. “That’s so generous of him. You should totally fall at his feet in gratitude.”
“I know, right?” She smiled back. “I told him I’d think about it.”
“Really, he should show you that he wants it. Not that he’s just doing it for you.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re smart for your age?” Ericka turned, about to walk off. “I should go. I don’t want to work hungry. See you in class?”
I nodded. “Happily.”
She returned the nod, then walked off. As she went, I went back to soaking in the morning. A minute later, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Lorelei stepped up to my side, giving me a good-morning smile.
“Hey,” I said. “You look good.”
She gave me a quick kiss. I leaned into her, returning the affection.
“Thanks for last night,” I said. “I would have been depressed a lot longer without you to talk me through it.”
“We’ll do it again,” she said.
I laughed at that, despite how sad of a thought it was. She was right. If we stayed together, there would be many more tears to hold each other through. I looked forward to it.
“Woooooo!” came a voice behind us. “Look at you two.”
We looked back, saw Cheryl and Bianca coming out of the dorm. They were both ready for school, wearing outfits that looked professional and beautiful. I put a hand over my mouth, just stopping myself from squeaking.
“You’re an impressive couple,” said Cheryl. “If we didn’t come out now, I fully expect you to have sex right there.” She pointed at the ground where we stood. “Though if you’re still planning on it, me an Bianca can join yo—”
Bianca smacked her on the back of the head. “Stop it. It’s too diluted for you to be acting like yourself.”
I was pretty sure she meant too early. Bianca’s word swapping should have soured my mood, but I didn’t mind it. It was a reminder to live every moment.
“Ouch,” said Cheryl. “All right. Good things can wait. For now, let’s go get four stacks of pancakes for breakfast. The rest of you can get some too, if you want.”
Cheryl took Bianca by the hand and charged forward, dragging her past Lorelei and me. They rushed on to the dining hall.
“Come on!” Bianca waved back at us.
Lorelei and I looked at each other, and we couldn’t help grinning. This was going to be good. I could feel it.
“Let’s go.” I said, and together we went after Cheryl and Bianca.
It was the best thing we could do.
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