Short story: “Think Kindly on Our Fossils”

Destroying the Earth, or at least humanity, has long been sort of a literary hobby of mine. This short story was published in Voyage Short Story and Poetry Magazine in 2001 and the Triangulation: End of Time anthology in 2007.

squirrelThink Kindly on Our Fossils
by Sue Burke

When Comet Kabandha was discovered, Travis Hudson gawked from his window at the fuzzy light near the Pleiades stars.

“It’s a mistake,” he mumbled. Plotting comet trajectories was tricky, everyone was saying so. “They’ll check their math and we’ll be fine.”

Astronomers checked and rechecked. Finally, on television, world leaders, united and somber, asked for courage in the remaining three months before the comet struck Earth.

Travis turned off the TV. He had always believed the universe had a purpose, and therefore humanity had a purpose, and therefore he had a purpose, and it had to be something more noble than a head-on collision with a giant ball of dust and ice. He was only 29 and enjoyed his job as a construction site manager. Under his watch, buildings rose to completion, and he felt that he was becoming something, too. Someday, he believed, he would understand more than the efficient scheduling of subcontractors. He had his whole life ahead of him. But no more.

Each day, Comet Kabandha grew closer and more appalling. Riots and chaos — and huge parties — broke out here and there, but for some reason that he didn’t understand and no one could explain to him, life went on in many ways far too normally.

Construction work stopped, which he did understand. He had time to ponder his doom, and finally, after seeing a mention in the news, he drove frantically to the annual Crater Days celebration in Manson, Iowa, to inspect the world’s fifteenth-largest impact crater. It would tell him something — he knew it would.

In Manson, he saw only tents, plywood booths, a midway surrounded by cornfields, and sparser crowds than he had hoped for. His disappointment became anger as he walked in.

“Where’s the crater?” he asked a woman sitting at the official souvenir booth.

She gave him a welcoming smile. “Straight down, twenty-four miles wide, seventy-four million years old. Not as big as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, of course, or the one that’s coming. Would you like a geological survey?” She held up a spiral-bound report.

Travis kicked the front of a hot dog stand. “You’re all going to die. Do something. Fight back.” He aimed another kick at a telescope for rent.

A teenage girl guarded it, fists raised. “Hey, I want to watch Kabandha catch us. It’s the best show of my life.”

“Your life is over.”

“Not yet.”

He threw a squeeze bottle of mustard at her. “This isn’t a party. Don’t die happy.”

The woman selling souvenirs got up and stood face to face with him. “Look, we’ve got some carnival games and crafts sales and live music at sunset. If it’s not for you, get out.”

Travis drove a few miles, his despair deepening as he considered the cornfields with their half-ripe ears. No one would eat that corn. He spotted a church and blundered in.

“Angels will save us, right? God will take us all into heaven, won’t He? We don’t deserve this.”

The minister had been vacuuming the carpet in the aisles. “Actually, I don’t think we can expect special treatment from the universe. Angels and life-after-death are primitive myths.”

Travis fell to his knees. “But there has to be a soul, a spirit, something more than my body. We’ll transcend our deaths.”

“Of course. Humanity is the consciousness of the universe.”

“We were sent a Savior. I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart. I’ve been good. I deserve better, don’t I?”

“Well,” the minister said, “let us pray for those who survive the coming earthquakes and tidal waves and firestorms and dust and darkness and cold. They’ll suffer and starve and repopulate the Earth. Or else some humble creature will arise to sentience and worship. Or else the comet will bring amino acids for a new form of life. This is not the end. God is eternal beyond our comprehension.”

“But I’m afraid. I’ve never died before.” He prayed for a long time. The minister finished vacuuming.

As Travis left after sunset, a car pulled up and a bride and groom got out and entered the church. The comet and its tail shined overhead.

He went home and wrote: “I, Travis Hudson, being of sound mind and body, do hereby declare that since there’s nothing to leave to anyone anyhow, I will not leave my death to chance, either, or to giant dirty snowballs being tossed at us by a person or persons unknown.”

He sent a bullet into his brain. With a centimeter difference in aim, he would have succeeded. Although it seemed absurd to him, an ambulance came and carted him off to the hospital.

While he was on the operating table, he got as close to death as any man alive, and he awoke from surgery aware of the meaning of life, obvious and amazing. The nurses listened politely, but he came to realize they already knew, or they wouldn’t show up for their shifts.

At his release from the hospital, he had a distracting scar on his forehead, diminished use of his left side, and great inner peace.

By then a storm of meteors tore through the night, dozens falling per second. Northern lights flickered like drunken rainbows. The comet glowed in the west bigger than a full moon, and its blue tail stretched to the far horizon. In the half-light, birds sang like it was dawn. Travis limped to a park bench. A squirrel approached to beg.

“It’s a beautiful night,” he said. He tossed peanuts so it would stay and listen. “I’m a wise man now. Will you evolve into the next thing to suffer self-awareness, little guy? You’ll see eternity but never reach it. You’ll know death but never experience it while you’re alive. You won’t have any excuses for what you do after you become self-aware. The knowledge of death will be the loss of innocence.”

It seemed to be listening. He gave it the entire bag of peanuts. It was going to need them.

“I hope you’ll think kindly on us when you find our fossils.”

He walked away over a hill to dance with dinosaurs. A Tyrannosaurus waved its little arms to beat out waltz time. A squat Euoplocephalus swung its clubbed tail and tore up the turf and flowers as it lumbered, one-two-three, one-two-three. Travis Hudson understood the universe, and the sun would not rise on him again.

© 2001 by Sue Burke

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