What Will the World’s End Feel Like?
Editor’s note: This is part 4 of a 5-part short story by Nebula Award finalist Jeffrey A. Carver. Part 1 is here , part 2 is here and part 3 is here. The story deals with what it looks like for any of us to shape the reality we’re living in. At this point of our story, we realize we play for high stakes.
Reality School: In the Entropy Zone
The days that followed brought ever more frightening news from the outside world: earthquakes, civil unrest, solar flares, threats of war. There was little doubt now that it was connected to the entropic folding. At least people believed now that what we did here at the school was real. And it was some consolation that the rest of the world still existed. One of my nightmares was that the entropic bubble would just swallow the Earth whole, the way it had swallowed the shapers, like a serpent devouring its tail.
Like everyone else, I phoned my parents and sister, and afterward cried for hours. My parents wished they'd never enrolled me at the school, and they wanted to take me home. But that was impossible, of course—and not just because of the continuum-bubble that enclosed us. Outside our perimeter, we were now effectively quarantined—not by the civil authorities, but by a growing army of protesters.
We first learned about it on the TV news. The Robert Patwell church had gotten to us first and formed a human blockade around the school property. They were praying and singing, and Reverend Patwell himself was out there with a microphone calling on us to give up our pact with the devil. Never before had I seen such naked hatred directed at me. Other groups were out there, too, maneuvering for position. Environmental groups were cheek-by-jowl with foreign agents, claiming we were destroying the world in the name of protecting the American way of life. Some were making noises about cutting off our power and water. Fortunately for our sanity, the school grounds were wooded inside the perimeter, and that kept the protesters mostly out of sight. We could just see one clot of them, way down at the end of our driveway.
We watched a big argument on TV between Reverend Patwell's people and some nuns from the Catholic convent over the hill from us. Apparently the nuns thought we were a hazard to God's Kingdom, too; but they thought we were victims, not perpetrators. They didn't go around using names like "servants of the darkness." And they didn't take too kindly to Patwell leading his throngs over the convent grounds like an army invasion, setting up their human chain. Once Patwell had done it, all the others followed suit. The sheriff's department was out there, and the National Guard, and we were grateful to see men with rifles standing watch under the high-tension power lines that fed our bubble.
"Jesus," said Harvey Snowden in disgust. He was one of the older boys, but he'd gotten too close to the wall of fog, and it had changed him. He now looked like a scrawny twenty-year-old woman. It scared the rest of us just to look at him. "Isn't it bad enough, without all these religious nuts going at it with each other?" Harvey was an atheist who wished they'd all go away.
That set off Danny Hutton, whose dad was a Congregational minister. Reverend Hutton had visited the school chapel once and preached to us about how the reality school was a special kind of service to God—and if the scientists who had gotten us into this were guilty of meddling pride, so were certain church organizations. I tried to take comfort in those words now, but it wasn't easy. "Not everyone who believes is crazy like them!" Danny snarled. He stormed away from the TV—mad at Harvey, mad at Reverend Patwell, and mad at the gnawing zone of entropy that was eating our world alive.
"You'd think," said Lisa, quivering in front of the TV, "that people would try to behave a little better, what with the apocalypse on us and all." She got up to try again to call her parents; she hadn't been able to get through to them yet. She was worried that they'd already disappeared. Physically, Lisa looked to be about ten now, but something was happening; she was becoming a young woman. She was even starting to gravitate toward the boys for comfort, especially Danny Hutton. It was three days since the entropic fold had taken Judy and the shapers.
Apocalypse? I thought stupidly, and realized with a shock that all this really did have serious eschatological overtones to it.
Eschatological? Where the hell had I learned to use words like that? And know what they meant?
What is happening to me? I am in a desolate wasteland of ash-choked craters and volcanic eruptions. Is it punishment for my failure to save the creature in the sea? Is this what it all turns into, when we fail, each one of us, to save the other? I hack for breath in the smoky air, and stagger forward.
I can feel the flux of entropy burning around me like an electrical discharge, threatening to destroy not just the world but my own mind and soul. If I don't keep moving, I will die here. And I will have helped no one.
I trudge among volcanic vents that steam and smolder. What could my puny thoughts do to change this? Somewhere there must be a toehold on reality, a leverage point. It is what we came here, all of us, to find. "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth," Archimedes said. That is what we must do, to push back the tide of entropy. And yet, flames of doubt lick at me.
The ground shudders, a low rumble in the earth. A moment later, a peak in front of me explodes. I fall to the ground as a column of smoke towers into the sky. Blazing lava rains down onto the earth. A river of blood-red magma streams toward me.
Am I about to be incinerated, buried in final failure? As my mind seethes, the tide of burning earth drives toward me. And a thought slowly comes into focus: it was my own doubt that brought the volcano into being. My own fears. If I allow them to, my fears will swallow and destroy me.
I remember the creature who died in the sea because of my hesitation. And yet I know: I am not powerless. I still have my being, my spirit, my will. I am a shaper. I blink, remembering that, as the lava sweeps toward me like a tidal wave of flame.
"They're at the power lines! They're trying to cut the power lines! Tell Mr. Playstead!" Roberta tore out the door of the TV room, running to find someone in charge.
I stood open-mouthed, watching her disappear around the corner. I ran into the TV room, where a few of the kids were watching the special report. On camera, a utilities truck was pulled up to an electric tower, and a man was maneuvering himself in the cherry picker toward the power lines. The camera switched to Reverend Patwell, who was rejoicing loudly. It looked to be protesters, not the electric utility, doing the deed. Where were the security forces? "My God," I croaked. "If they cut off the power—"
"There goes the continuum-bubble," Harvey rattled hoarsely. He was trembling with rage.
"But don't we have some kind of... backup?" whispered Lottie Gerns. "A generator? Something?"
Harvey laughed like a man about to commit mayhem. It made me shiver, coming from someone who looked like a woman. "For the lights, yeah—but not the bubble. It takes too much power. Why do you think we have those high tension lines coming in?"
I swallowed, watching the man in the cherry picker. He was peering down, and the camera shifted to a knot of people gathered around some sort of control station. The man on the truck was waiting for the power to be shut off, so he could cut the line down.
"Then—" I said "—there won't be any containment at all." Whatever effects had leaked out till now, the worst of the entropic influence was contained within our bubble.
"You got it," said Harvey. "Mr. Playstead—you see these jerks?"
Mr. Playstead was breathless as he ran into the room. "I just talked to the sheriff," he gasped. "He said they'd stop it. They don't know what happened to the security people—they seem to have vanished."
We watched, petrified, as the cameras panned to the flashing lights of the sheriff's cars pulling up. There was a lot of shouting. Finally the crowd gave way, and a couple of tough-looking deputies with high-powered rifles took up guard posts. After a short argument, the utility truck drove away.
I nearly collapsed with relief, my heart pounding. Where was Lisa? She hadn't seen this; I had to go tell her. I ran from the room, looking for her.
She wasn't in the cafeteria, or in the dorm. I finally found her outside behind the main building, huddled on the grass under some trees. Not alone. With Danny Hutton. I ran up, yelling, "Lisa! Danny! You won't believe what—" before I saw what they were doing. They were kissing. No, more than kissing. They were groping. Frantically.
I staggered to a halt, the words still tumbling out of my mouth. Lisa shrank, glaring at me with murderous fury. "Would you get the hell out of here?" she snapped.
I stood there, dumbfounded and humiliated. "But—" I choked, not knowing what to say next. I was appalled—but was it because she was doing this when the whole world was at stake, or because I was jealous? And who was I jealous of—Lisa or Danny?
Lisa seemed unable to say anything else; she just glared. Danny looked away from both of us, in acute embarrassment. In the end, I fled back to our room, hardly remembering why I'd been looking for her in the first place.
That night, a loud concussion woke us all up and sent us running to the TV. It took a few minutes for the backup generator to come on.
Someone had managed to blow up the power lines, after all.
The lava parts like the Red Sea, a river of fire on either side. I watch, stunned, as walls of glowing earth rise around me. Can my own belief have such power? I descend into the earth, flaming magma cocooning me.
Volcanic heat rages against my skin. I feel chaos plucking at me, magnetic fields streaming through me. I am floating in a firestorm of magma, like a spirit swimming in the fires of creation. It all begins to blur, then comes back into focus. It is not the Earth I am floating in, but a lake of luminous red, with a flame burning brightly at its center. It is an enormous candle, a sunken lake of wax, the light of the flame glowing through its translucent walls. It seems impossible.
But not as impossible as the voices.
The human voices, all around me.
I heard my name called, and didn't want to answer. I was holed up in my room, weeping into my blanket. I was no longer six years old, but—what? Thirteen? Thirty? My breasts hurt, and I'd gotten my period—just after the miserable cold breakfast we'd all had together, after the loss of the continuum-bubble, after a nighttime vigil waiting for protesters to invade us, protesters who never came. I'd complained to Lisa about my cramps—we'd sort of made up, because with the whole world falling apart, what was the point of staying mad?—and she'd grunted, "Well, about time it happened to you, too! I don't know how much more time we'll have! Enjoy it while you can."
I'd stared at her, bewildered. I wasn't even sure exactly what she meant. After seeing her with Danny, I figured she meant sex. But it was all so alien to me, so unreal. It wasn't bad enough what was happening to the world—did we have to grow old in these great, uneven jags?
We were just kids, damn it!
I heard my name called again. But I didn't want to talk to anyone. If there'd been any counselors left in this place, I wouldn't have talked to them, either. I especially didn't want to hear about Lisa and Danny Hutton.
"Alexandri, come see what's happened outside!" It was Lottie Gern, and she was frantic. She ran back out of my room, and on to Roberta's room, shouting.
I cursed and went outside. I found Lisa and Danny and most of the kids, plus Mr. Playstead and Miss Jennings, standing on the front lawn. We'd kept sentries there all night, ready to call out at the first sign of intruders.
The forest had rolled up like an army, right to the front of the administration building. All the desert-grass-covered mountain slopes, across the little valley from the school property, were thick with dense woods.
There was no sign of any of the picket lines, or of any human life out there at all.
Part 5 comes soon!
Copyright © 1995 Jeffrey A. Carver
First appeared in Science Fiction Age, March 1995.
Also appears in the story collection Reality and Other Fictions, by Jeffrey A. Carver (www.starrigger.net/ebooks.htm)