The End of the World as We Know It

Quin once told me, “You know, Sennet, there comes a time when throwing the first punch is the only way to avoid being on the receiving end of it.” That was maybe a year before he caught religion, but only about ten minutes before he himself got caught with a pair of dice that kept rattling after he’d stopped shaking them. Personally, I never saw the angle in showing up expecting to get found out, but I’m the right size to fit through doorways and stand up straight in most rooms. I figured things must look different when you’re craning your neck all the time to see them. Or when you’ve stopped caring about what you see.

Later, Quin called that night the turning point. Not that he learned some divine lesson as a direct consequence of cheating because he did not. And how could he have? If the gods wanted to help karma catch him they needed to send more than half a dozen itinerant drunks pumped up with righteous indignation about a con they were too lazy or stupid to work themselves. No, back then he was already proving his worth as a prophet. When the first gambler barked his accusation, Quin lifted the man by his collar and gave him a single gut-shot so hard I thought the poor guy’s eyes might pop out of their sockets and hit the far wall. That was the entirety of that fight, and while the other men carried their friend out of the bar, Quin turned and began shouting for drinks.

Yet, as Quin was also fond of saying, the gods work with the unorganized determination of a wino. Their logic might be scattered and indecipherable to a sober mind, but results were results. By the time he stumbled out of the bar the next morning, Quin was the sort of rubbery drunk that stares too long at the sun, wondering why it hurts, and then runs headlong into a low-hanging tree branch hard enough to knock himself unconscious. He lay on my bed for three days, sweating and mumbling, while I watched a fist-sized lump on his forehead rise and fall like a geological formation. The Quin that came out of the coma was a different person. No less violent or prone to fits of half-cocked hubris, but a holy theme worked its way into his slow aphorisms. He’d found a purpose in that fever dream and a week later he left town on a pilgrimage. Eighteen months after that, he returned riding on the back of an auroch and draped in the gold-flecked robes of some firebrand cult that moved up and down the far coast spreading tales of an oncoming apocalypse.

After he wrapped me in his bear hug and said, “We’re all going to die, Sennet,” Though it wasn’t a whisper, I’m sure nobody else could hear him. For a moment, I thought it must be another of his sappy come-ons, but he left it at that. The embrace ended and he had his square smile back in place as he threw himself into the small welcoming party.

I’d known Quin all my life, knew the boy who turned into the man. I knew the Quin that existed behind closed doors as much as anyone could, and I’d seen him in real pain before. I had vivid memories of the origins of many of the scars on his slab of a body, including the pale gashes the slaver’s lashes had left across his back. I’d seen him bleed. I’d seen Quin frustrated, I’d seen him angry. I’d seen Quin weep openly while holding the tattered flag of his mother’s sunken slave barge. But I had never seen him scared before, not until that day. And not again until the night the moon died.

Which isn’t entirely true, but it took the power of hindsight to recognize the first time I’d seen Quin truly frightened. Or maybe it was my own shame that kept me from recognizing it.

Owning a bar, I’m used to hearing people talk about their problems, telling me slurred stories about how everything went wrong. About how they’d been wronged. Some only want to vent, but more often they expect input, which I tried to give if only to hold up my end. I wasn’t exactly in a position where I could tell my customers to piss off if I wanted to have any customers left. Before his trip to the coast, Quin liked to sit and eavesdrop, leaning over the bar in a way that reminded me of an overfed cat, watching with his smile that was too big to be sly.

One night, while I pushed his elbow aside to wipe the counter down, Quin said, “Your trouble is that you’re giving them reasons when what they really want is logic.”

“My trouble is that Gowan is as stupid a man as I’ve ever met,” I said, wiping up the rest of my latest advice recipient’s accidentally-on-purpose spilt drink. “And that’s saying something because my father was the one who decided to build this pub in about the worst place possible that isn’t also at the bottom of the sea. Nothing you say to him gets through anyway.”

“Still,” said Quin. “You know people always have reasons. For doing what they do. It may not make sense, but they do.” His voice trailed off and he took another pull from his glass.

I knew exactly what he meant. I said, “You’re telling me that Gowan’s reason is that he’s an idiot.” Which wasn’t what he meant.

“Sure,” said Quin and shrugged. He finished his drink, paid, and left without another word. I locked up behind him.

He was right and we both knew it. Knew it then, and knew it still when he came back to set up his apocalyptic enclave of hedonism trying to outpace his vision of the end of the world. I knew his logic, that for him the world had already ended. And I knew the reason, too.

I made the mistake once of bringing it up. After that fight over the dice, after he’d screamed at me for yet another bottle, I slammed it down and asked, “What would Durand think of you now?”

And Quin had stared at me, not moving, not blinking, while his knuckles turned white around his glass. In the moment I tensed for his outburst, he sagged, shoulders going slack, and when he looked back up at me his eyes were red-rimmed and wet. “If I knew what Durand thought, I’d know why he left.”

Cue the drinking that lead to his divine inspiration.

I could have pushed him out early but I saw it then, too. Wide-eyed terror at the world he’d crashed down into since Durand walked out of his life the year before. At what kind of a man he must be, deep on the inside, for that to have happened in the first place. I didn’t need that Quin loose on the streets–or street, because that’s about all we had then–not with people out there who might want another shot at him.

Logic and reason. Thinking logically, sane people–and that grouping still included Quin even after he’d come back from the coast–would ever allow Gowan to rope them into one of his schemes. But for the right reason, people are capable of all sorts of surprises.

He came to both of us with his plan. “I got myself a guard post on the very first train into this shithole,” he said, his big nose giving him the look of a proud rat. “I’ll have the keys, you see? We can get it all.”

“All what?” I asked.

“All the cargo, woman,” said Gowan. “You run a bar, right? We’re standing in it, aren’t we? You need booze, don’t you? Well, they got booze on the train. Crates of the stuff.”

I sighed. “I know they have crates of booze on the train, Gowan, because I’m the one who ordered those crates of booze.”

With slow blinks, the usual brain power needed to work his muscles suddenly co-opted to figure out what I was telling him, Gowan turned away from me and toward Quin, who sat a couple stools over at the bar. “How about you, then, big guy? Word on the street is you could use some party supplies.”

“I could,” said Quin, speaking to Gowan while he looked directly at me. “It won’t be long now till it’s all over.”

“You got that right,” I said. “We start getting trains coming through and I’ll be getting some real clientele for once. People who aren’t just drinking to fuel another orgy, you know?”

“It will be over soon either way,” said Quin. He turned to look down on Gowan. “And you are willing to make this a charitable donation?”

Gowan squinted back. “Whatever that means,” he said. “Sure, you can keep that stuff. I’ve got something else I want.”

“Does it still count as the end of the world if it’s only you two idiots going out to get yourselves shot?” I asked. “Because I’m beginning to think it would be the opposite.”

I’ll say the reason was to protect my investment and there’s some truth in that. But that’s not what I thought about during the breaking blue dawn on the day the train was supposed to roll into town. That day, that hour, that minute and second, I thought only that maybe Quin really did know something the rest of us didn’t. It came in one of those singular, stark instances, so picturesque that in the moment they feel surreal to the point of being unnatural.

But I was already buzzed from half a flask of good rum, so, you know, not the best candidate for nuanced self-reflection.

I remember standing there in the cold, the winds of the plain whipping grit through the air like illusory waves. The train tracks ran as parallel lines of silver off into the horizon and Quin stood astride them, legs splayed, arms up to embrace the distant, fading moon. The last moon any of us would ever see. I got the impression of a statue, a fixture, as if Quin had always been there and always would be. And the same gust that caught his robes brought the edge of his murmured prayer to my ears while a dozen of his half-naked followers took up the chant from all around me.

Like I said, it was weird, even for a train robbery.

His followers dropped to their knees as Quin’s voice rose. “On the final day, we give ourselves completely to oblivion. Come what may, our dedication will not waver.”

The train appeared as a shimmering speck at the edge of sight, a single reddish dot trying to break through the dirty haze. I felt the vibrations through the track before I heard the steady pulse of the steam engines. In my slightly inebriated state, it felt monolithic, like civilization itself chugged toward us. One way or another, Quin was right. Things would never be the same. I hurried away from the track to the cover of a nearby tree trunk.

“There,” bellowed Quin. “There.” When I peaked out he wasn’t pointing to the onrushing train, but toward the sky. At the moon.

A hush fell over his small congregation. I reached for my flask.

“What is it?” someone asked. We watched as a growing black corona appeared around the moon like a smudge of night coming back through the morning sky. I got this tingle down my spine, the sensation of someone–something–sneaking up behind me. I turned and saw nothing. I tasted the sweet burn of my rum, drank with my eyes open. Drank while I saw the moon move. Saw it shudder as if from an impact. I didn’t understand any of it, but I knew with all the well-honed instincts that generations of drunkards in my family had passed down to me that it was not a time to be sober.

Putting the flask away, and feeling the effects, I registered another sound. A great horn pounding at my temples, a hollow note over the steady percussion of the rail wheels. “Train,” I said to nobody in particular. By now, I could make out the machine’s other dimensions, could see the trailing length of it as it moved, got a better sense of the sheer weight and speed involved. “Train,” I said, louder.

Quin stood his ground, still staring at the moon. “Are you kidding me?” I asked aloud. That’s how I get with too much drink and in the moment it didn’t seem to matter if anyone noticed. Taking a few long steps forward, I got a profile view. “Are you kidding me?” I repeated. His eyes were closed.

“Quin,” I screamed over the ever increasing noise, the jaw-tightening screech of the brakes. “The train.” But he either couldn’t hear me or he wasn’t listening.

Shoving one of the grovelling disciples aside, I scrambled up the shallow slope to the track and reached for Quin’s sleeve. He turned to me, opening his eyes, and showed me a toothy smile. I know I was still shouting at him but by then I couldn’t hear myself over the screeching brakes. Quin mouthed something back. “Don’t worry,” or, “No hurry,” I couldn’t tell. I pulled and he didn’t move. I pushed and he didn’t move. I aimed a knuckle at his ribs. He flinched, he looked up at the train. He moved.

Lying in the dirt, feeling something sharp digging into the space between my shoulder blades, my eyes tracked the passing cars in dizzying back-and-forth pans. I had to shut them to keep nausea from overwhelming me, but couldn’t block out the shattering din even with my hands clamped over my ears. In that whirling darkness, I had a single image coming in and out of focus, that of a pale face staring out from one of the train’s open windows. A familiar face. A face that had promised me I would never see it again.

Somewhere nearby, Quin had started screaming.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen like this,” said Quin.

I finished my flask off. It didn’t help with the sour taste on my lips, nor did it do much to wash away the hard sand coating my tongue. But under the circumstances, I didn’t have much else to do except what came naturally.

“They promised me,” said Quin. “They told me I’d never see him again.”

The face in the window.

“I saw everything else,” said Quin. “I saw all of this.”

Red streaks in the sky, ribbons of fire rolling out over that great canopy. I had my eyes open and knew it wasn’t a dream. I heard soft sobbing from somewhere on my left. The train must have stopped, though I wasn’t about to strain my neck to look for it.

“They told me he was dead,” said Quin, and I heard it. “I can’t do that again, Sennet.” The quiver, the hesitation. The fear. “I can’t lose him a third time.”

I felt a rumble against my spine, something so slight. It spoke of distant power. Wincing, I propped myself up on my elbows, shifted my gaze past the still train, the gleaming tracks, at the horizon they’d come from. Now the terminus of one of the falling fireballs, I saw what I knew had to be the distant capital city of Sloan. Not itself, as its bent spires and mazes of curved roofs were far too distant to see from where we were. But that spot became a singular point of destruction, a slow-motion eruption that reminded me of a flower in bloom. Something that big, there was nobody and nothing walking away from it. In the time it took me to reflexively pull from my already empty flask, Sloan, and everyone who lived there, no longer existed.

“Wow,” I said because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Collapsing back to the ground, I watched more of the missiles soaring past overhead. And the moon itself, or what was left of it, now hanging in the sky like a crude mobile, a half-finished sculpture of what had always been there. Behind that, the huge, dark thing loomed still, now more obvious but no more detailed that before.

“What is that?” I wondered.

“I don’t know,” said Quin.

I must have drifted off as the next thing I knew, Gowan’s pointy face hovered over me and I felt something smooth and hard pressed against my forehead. My eyes crossed as I tried to focus on the barrel of his rifle. “Really?”

“Get up,” snarled Gowan, pressing the rifle down harder so that I couldn’t move at all.

“Where’s Quin?” I asked.

“The train,” said Gowan. “This is your fault. Get up.”

“How about you ease off, then, kid?” He did, and I pushed myself to my feet so he could jab the rifle into my back instead.

There were smaller metallic objects in the sky now, amongst the rain of fireballs. They moved like flies, flitting back and forth with clear purpose. As I watched, one veered off from its formation, soaring down and banking toward us. I heard a whine coming on the wind, the sound of ten million wasps buzzing in our direction.

“Shit,” said Gowan. “What the fuck is that thing?”

The thing came straight at us like a poorly-thrown dart, hitting the ground behind the train, skipping up and flipping through the air before smashing into the locomotive and sliding to a stop against a desiccated tree. The locomotive flew off the tracks as if kicked by a giant foot, twisting the train along with it. It tumbled a few times and exploded as the engine ruptured.

“Quin,” I said, taking a step and running into Gowan’s rifle. Around us, the disciples began to wail. “Get that thing out of my face.”

“No,” said Gowan. “You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what happened.”

“That happened, you moron,” I said, pointing up at the broken moon. “And unless you think my bad attitude did that, how is this anything to do with me?”

Lowering the rifle from my face to my stomach, Gowan said, “But she’s in Sloan. She’s waiting for me there.”

I wanted to say something, but the name that slipped out wasn’t Gowan’s on-and-off sweetheart that he’d pined for so often in my bar. “Durand,” I said, and ran–well, stumbled–toward the twisted wreck of the train.

Gowan followed, and we found Quin as he heaved himself through a broken window, a limp form cradled in his arms. He saw me approaching and said, “It’s really him.”

Different uniform, different hair, face smudged with soot and blood, but it was definitely Durand.

“He came back to me.” Quin nearly choked on the words. “The end of the damned world, and here he is.”

His disciples had gathered around us, but kept their distance. They all had the droopy-eyed looks of disappointed dogs. The apocalypse was here, yet they were all still alive. When Quin came near, they gave him extra space, mumbling to themselves as their prophet lay the body of his former lover on the ground.

“Now what?” someone asked.

Straightening, Quin looked them over. He seemed to come to a decision and opened his mouth to speak.

Which is when the crashed object burst open with a hideous crack like a breaking bone and we learned that dropping the moon on us was only the first stage of the apocalypse. What came next soon made me envious of the former citizens of our great cities and their quick deaths.

[Note: If you made it this far, good job. This is another first chapter for an imaginary work, this time thrown together at the last minute to meet the deadline of a small contest. It ain’t much, but I’ve a bit of personal attachment to it now as my life, moods, and thoughts completely changed halfway through writing and it became something I’d not intended by the end. Character-wise, I mean, as the overall plot, such as it is, remains relatively consistent.

If you’re at all curious, this obvious prelude to an alien invasion of some imaginary steam-punkish world would soon centre around the invaders being so beholden to the godlike oders of their worldship’s supercomputers that they’d long ago devolved into Morlock-inpsired cretinous brutes. I don’t know, flipping the premise on the usually superior invaders seemed like a fun idea at the time, and I liked the characters.]

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