Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Ten years ago, when Adrian Vale had first made his appearance in magazines, he was the subject of unalloyed ridicule. His laconic announcement that a renewed dawn of lighter-than-air passenger airships was imminent had journalists tripping over each other to see who could cram the most Hindenburg references into a single article. The crafts Vale proposed did not run on hydrogen, a nuance which escaped the notice of the self-proclaimed wonks who blogged from Brooklyn. The flagship craft, the Lyra, had made its debut seven years ago using a novel form of solar power and water vapor, and was later joined by the Icarus and Atlantis, both of which had remained stubbornly in the air.
Now the only things that gleamed more than the white epoxied floors of Vale Aerospace were the massive airships perched atop them, and the eyes of would-be suitors when they thought of Adrian Vale’s net worth. Vale himself hadn’t spoken in public in five years, and other than the occasional journalist making snide references to Howard Hughes, he was left alone to do whatever it is genius billionaires do when out of the public gaze.
In Vale’s case, that meant a joint venture with Jason Wren, of Asimov Energetics. To avoid premature publicity, they had formed a dummy corporation named Amalgamated Technologies and utilized satellite offices in Tokyo and Moscow. This was an effective strategy, and intercontinental collaboration had gone smoothly—until five days ago, when the Russians had severed all wireless and wired communication with the outside world and shut down their airspace. Vale’s only remark: “That is not optimal.”
Three hours ago, his security team had received a transmission from the Tokyo office. It showed their director, a well-respected physicist from the University of Tokyo, babbling frantically about “ekibyo”, before the transmission abruptly cut off. Vale had been briefed on the transmission by an assistant, who helpfully remarked that, “with regards to ‘ekibyo’, sir... the word means ‘blight’.”
Vale gazed at him balefully. “That is extremely suboptimal.”
The sparkling blue waters of the ocean crashed against the white sand of Cape Town. Leo van Vossen was seated at a table facing away from the water, with the stony face of a sphinx, staring into the bug-eyed and spittle-flecked face of his father, Anders.
Anders spoke in a register that bore a striking resemblance to malice but clinically was considered despair.
“See the world? Everyone in the world—except for us—is an evil soulless bastard who can’t be trusted. You think your mother was any different? She was a witch, and her whole damned family was a bunch of Satanists. They cursed me—her and her potions—you’ll see! You think carjackers killed her? Another damn spell. She’s alive, with her horrible sisters, still laughing at me.” His voice, quite unintentionally, increased an octave in pitch and warbled. “They’re going to clone me and replace me! They’re going to lock me away! And you—” His eyes narrowed. “—my own son. You don’t even believe me!”
Leo van Vossen was fourteen then. It had been like that daily for two years, and continued relentlessly, until silently and unceremoniously at age seventeen he left South Africa without a note and boarded a transatlantic airship to America.
8,313 miles away from Cape Town, Leo van Vossen and fifty other students filed into a concave lecture hall conveniently located in a basement floor on the furthest edge of Vanderbilt’s campus in Tennessee. They had arrived for The Medieval Foundations of Modern Cosmology, taught by a partially shaven stringy-haired thirty-something who introduced himself as “Fritz Larson, PhD, M.Div, Esq.” Larson cleared his throat.
“I know this is the first day of class, so I won’t bore you with equants and epicycles—that’ll wait for the test. What I want to talk about today is a question most of you are asking yourselves right now— ‘Why are we here’? You may be here because you had to take a mandatory social science course to graduate, but we are here because eons ago, miraculously, there was something rather than nothing. And yes, STEM-heads, I said ‘miraculously’. One thing I hope all of you will get from this course is that the conception of the universe that all of us ‘rational’, ‘scientific’, ‘modern’ people carry around has deeper roots than some talking-head astrophysicist with a TV show, okay? We think we’re so special, so enlightened—‘ooh, I can look at celebrity bikini photos in VR, take that, Aristotle!’ Meanwhile, people in the twelfth century were using astrolabes to precisely calculate the position of the planets. We have no idea just how much we’ve lost from the past, and just how much we owe to it. If you take away anything from this class, please take away that.”
After the syllabi were passed out and grading metrics were grumbled over, Leo noticed the girl sitting next to him. She had flowing dark hair and blue eyes that could only be described as sparkly. He blinked—not a hallucination.
She smiled at him. “This looks like it’ll be interesting.” Leo configured his face into an expression he desperately hoped also qualified as a smile. Apparently he succeeded, because she continued, “My name’s Annabelle, by the way—maybe we can study together?”
Leo smiled again, this time effortlessly. “I’m Leo. That’d be great.” As the mass of students was leaving, Leo stood in place, buffeted by the crowd. Annabelle, exiting, looked back at him with her impossibly blue eyes and said with a soft drawl, “See you soon, Leo.” He smiled weakly and she was gone.
Leo wasn’t exactly sure what had just happened, but he knew one thing for certain: he was a hell of a way away from Cape Town.
It was 4:30 AM and Adrian Vale could not sleep. Outside his window, a sea of fog hovered over a forest of concrete and glass. He paced alone in his Phoenix penthouse. Thirty years, alone. When he did manage to sleep, a golden-haired girl haunted his dreams—the insomnia was preferable. He had spent thirty years reshaping the world in tribute to her and what she could have been, and it never seemed enough. The world was not good enough for her. All his mastery of it meant nothing. Except—
There was another chance. A way to make the world anew. A way out of the technological hellscape he had helped bring into existence. A way to discard the poisonous modern philosophers who had coated the world in an oil slick of nihilism.
For the first time since childhood, he prayed.
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Hail our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry,
Poor banished children of Eve;
To thee do we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
As the time together passed by in a beautiful haze, Leo van Vossen learned many things about Annabelle Dupree, and he remembered them all. Her family was French royalty turned Louisiana swamp trappers turned upper-middle class Methodists, she knew an uncanny number of recipes involving shellfish, and her best friend Maribel once dared her to drink a combination of Hawaiian Punch and vinegar, which apparently soured her on fluorescent-colored beverages. One of their earliest conversations, however, was seared into his mind as though he had been branded.
Annabelle had turned to him in class and asked what he was studying to be.
“I’m going to be a physicist. Where I was growing up—South Africa—everything always seemed to be going wrong or in a state of chaos. I’ve been trying to get behind the first principles of how the world operates, which I think will lead to being able to get power over it and make it better, and that’s what I’ve been progressing towards”—he felt with increasing panic that he sounded grandiosely delusional, and trailed off lamely—“at least, hopefully.”
Annabelle smiled half-ruefully. “You’re probably better at this class than me, then. I’m an English major. I’d like to be a poet. I know it’s not seen as a very serious subject, but...I’ve always wanted to give people hope. John Donne, Dylan Thomas—even when they write about morbid things, there’s always this sense of...fighting back. They write like they want things to be better, and they make you feel it. I’d like to do that, some day...”
She looked down, embarrassed. “I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes in my notebook I practice my autograph for when I’ll do book signings.”
Leo’s head was spinning, but he managed to mutter, “That doesn’t sound crazy.”
His phone buzzed, and he inadvertently looked down. After he read what was on the screen, the phone clattered to the floor, and he dove to pick it up.
Annabelle looked at him with surprise. “What’s wrong?”
“An observatory in Hawaii—it detected an interstellar object passing through the Solar System. That’s the first one ever sighted. They’re calling it Kaʻelele.”
“What do they think it is?”
“An asteroid, probably. It’s rotating at incredibly fast speeds, so they know it isn’t from anywhere near here.”
“Could it be a spaceship?”
“I don’t think so—do you remember the quiz question on Fermi?”
“I think—he was the architect of the atomic age, right?”
“That’s the one—he also came up with a famous paradox. He pointed out that even though in theory other planets should have signs of intelligent life, we’ve never seen any signs of any. The universe is apparently ours for the taking.”
Annabelle leaned towards him and said teasingly, “What if he’s wrong?”
Leo smiled. “If he’s wrong, you can channel Lovecraft instead of Dylan Thomas.”
Leo was scrolling through the news on his phone. Photos of an ancient Gothic cathedral in flames stood in juxtaposition with those of a ten year old drag queen whose television show was receiving rave reviews.
Annabelle, beside him, frowned pensively. "Sometimes I feel like we're all barbarians playing dress-up, like Odoacer after the fall of Rome. We didn't build any of the civilizational accomplishments we've inherited, and it seems like all we can do is try to keep everything from collapsing."
Leo nodded. "In physics, that's called entropy—all complex systems eventually tend towards chaos and disintegration."
She deadpan drawled, "That's reassuring."
He laughed. "Apparently some of the billionaires in the Phoenix Autonomous Zone are trying to reverse entropy on the atomic level."
She raised an eyebrow. "Didn't they get in trouble for messing with the water supply out there? I saw somewhere said it was filled with mutagens."
Leo winced. "That was Denim Genomics. They can sometimes overdo it."
She twisted a lock of her dark hair. "I don't know if I like them having so much power over all our lives. I mean, they're brilliant, but that doesn't make them good people."
Leo shrugged. "At this point, who else do we have?"
Jason Wren was not happy. Wren’s face had a look of panic, and he had lost his usual foppish erudition. “Adrian, those reactors aren’t meant to go to these levels. I gave you state of the art miniaturized reactors, and they keep having meltdowns on your ships; what the hell kind of operation are you running here?”
Adrian looked at him with bored contempt. "I am no longer interested in building nuclear-powered airships. The reactors are working as intended."
Wren's eyes boggled, and he exploded. "Working as intended? You piece of shit, do you know how much those reactors cost to build? We've been friends for ten years, and you pull this shit on me? You goddamned reclusive freak, I'm done with this shit. This partnership is over."
Vale placidly watched him storm away. Wren was of no concern. Everything was already in place.
Adrian Vale was holding his first press conference in years. Leo and Annabelle were huddled around Leo's phone screen in anticipation of the livestream.
Leo's enthusiasm was palpable. Annabelle watched him, her eyes sparkling.
"He's absolutely incredible—I mean, just from a business standpoint, he took one of the most high-risk product ideas possible and brought it to life anyway, and the technology underlying the ships is absolutely amazing. If it weren't for him, I wouldn't have been able to leave South Africa, I wouldn't have started studying physics, I wouldn't have been able to meet you..."
He suddenly realized he had been rambling for the past three minutes, and abruptly shut his mouth in embarrassment.
Annabelle said softly, "I'm glad you're here, Leo."
Both of them, their faces slightly red, fell silent as the livestream began.
Adrian Vale stood in front of a podium in an empty room. The stage was bare. There were no presentation slides, only a gray wall behind him.
Adrian recited tonelessly: “ ‘We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.’ ”
Annabelle looked at Leo perplexedly. "He's reciting Lovecraft?"
Leo's brow furrowed, and they watched Adrian on the screen as he continued:
"Today, that day has come. At midnight tonight, a series of high-altitude nuclear explosions will occur. Upon their conclusion, the majority of the world's technological infrastructure will cease to be operable. I do not wish for casualties—I do not come as an angel of death, but as an angel of night. However, there will be death. That is regrettable but inevitable.
Scripture tells us: 'And the third angel sounded the trumpet: and a great star fell from heaven, burning as it were a torch. And it fell on the third part of the rivers and upon the fountains of waters: And the name of the star is called Wormwood. And the third part of the waters became wormwood. And many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.'
I have spent my life as the handmaiden of a system I despise, a system that took the only thing I ever loved from me. I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, but I intend to sin no more. I apologize to all those I may have led astray."
The livestream ended. Leo's screen displayed nothing but the Vale Aerospace logo. They sat in shocked silence.
There were two minutes to midnight.
Leo looked at Annabelle, and thought back to the sparkle in her eyes when she first looked at him, and the soft twang in her voice when she said his name, and the beautiful joy she brought to life—and in a sickening flash saw a spittle-flecked maniac an ocean away, and the sobs of his mother, and beams of radiation ripping through a womb—Annabelle’s womb—and his hands clenched with fury at the same time that tears came to his eyes.
“Annabelle, you are the most precious thing in the world to me. Whatever happens, I want you to know that being with you made everything worth it."
She drew him close. "Leo, no matter what, we'll make it through this. This can't be the end."
There were twelve seconds to midnight.
The Lyra hovered in the upper atmosphere like a vast citadel in the sky. In its interior deck, Adrian stood alone. His gaze was transfixed by the stars. A new star...
His body was enveloped by blinding white light. Adrian Vale was serene.
A boy and a girl stood in the shadow of a valley, the sky ablaze with pale fire. Their figures cut against a slight wind, daring it to get past them.
The two held hands, aglow in the sunlight after the end of the world.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.