LIGHTSPEED

I live on Neptune's largest moon, Triton. In two and a half hours Triton will be the only major mass with living humans on it with the exception of the few hundred engineers working in Neptune's atmosphere. One and a half hours after that and we'll be gone, too. Swallowed by the Sun, which exploded less than two minutes ago. It's doubtful whether anyone farther out - in the Kuiper Belt or Oort Cloud - will be spared, either. Hell, even if they did survive, what would there be for them to come back to?

I'm watching the Sun from a visual feed on an ancient probe on a solar orbit just outside Mercury's orbit and incidentally near enough to the planet that its circular shape can be made out in the glare of the Sun. The Sun itself, as it was two hundred seconds ago, is also visible. The intensity of it is burning my retinas, but this is not the time for visual filters. A counter on the video feed says that billions of others are watching, too. Forty seconds, now, before the electromagnetic energy from the Sun's explosion reaches Mercury and tears it apart on a molecular level. Our probe might have another half-second after that.

There are three billion people living on Mercury.

I see a dazzling flash of light before an emergency override brings me back to reality. I blink the spots away and the plain black walls of my apartment come gradually into view. A repeating pattern of soft beeps informs me that my retinal displays are recalibrating and that I'll have to wait a moment before I can find out what happened. I decide that now would be a good time for hot tea so I order it from my apartment's culinary unit. An androgynous robotic voice tells me to go fuck myself because the fabrication network is overloaded right now. It uses kinder words but the meaning is still there.

I flatter the rustic machine by calling it a "culinary unit". The model is almost fifty years old and the fruit it fabricates, at best, manages to taste exactly like cardboard. Sometimes it does a lot worse. I tried bringing a date home with me, once, some megaseconds ago. Dinner in bed, that's always romantic. I knew her favorite dessert because she couldn't shut up about strawberry cheesecake any time the subject of sweets came up. So as a follow-up to plastic steak, wet sand potatoes, and sewer-moss peas I ordered two slices of the finest strawberry cheesecake. It was a mistake. I spent the next megasec making sure I was never more than a meter from a toilet. My date fared worse. Last I heard she shat out a kidney and had to have major surgery. I didn't hear it from her, though, because she never spoke to me again.

My black walls start to flicker and finally they're replaced with the pallid greys and greens of my decorations. Most of them are posters for zombie flicks. Yeah, the human race never gets tired of those lumbering monsters. This means my retinal displays are back online and I immediately access a recording of that probe's final seconds. It's uninteresting. One frame everything appears normal, the next frame is blinding light all across the EM spectrum. I find another video, it claims to be the original slightly enhanced with computer models and slowed to a crawl. Who knows how accurate it really is, though. There being only two frames to go off of the whole thing must be a digital reconstruction.

Oh, and whoever threw it together only had three minutes or so since the light hit the actual probe. But I give it a chance anyway, it's not as though I've got anything more important to do. I tune into a commentary while I watch - it's still just a lonely and low frame-rate Mercury against a backdrop of pinprick stars - and I learn that Venus was hit twenty seconds ago and Earth has two minutes left.

The image is starting to change now. There's a faint corona around Mercury, and the space behind it is glittering like a comet trail. The light around mercury doesn't perceptibly change, but the planet itself reddens. The magnitude of infrared, especially around the outline of the disk, is extreme. The planet shudders and just as it seems it's going to shatter like a globe of glass dropped on asphalt the view is overwhelmed by light. I look for something else to occupy my eyes and I access a high frame-rate view from a telescope on the moon. It's being broadcast by an amateur starwatcher. I mute the audio because while I appreciate how the man is making it possible for the solar system watch Earth disintegrate in vivid detail I don't care for his religious opinions regarding the apocalypse.

The Earth is going to be consumed in thirty seconds and all I can hear is my wheezing breath. If I can't have tea I'll at least put some music on. It takes me ten seconds to arrive at the decision and another ten to realize I haven't got the time to pick something fitting. I have a random song play from my personal library. I watch Earth's atmosphere stripped away and all its inhabitants boiled to the opening chords of a contemporary pop song.

Mars gets four more minutes then Jupiter another couple kilosecs. I decide that I'd like to spend at least some of the time I have left in the local park. I grew up on Triton, in this particular city. I've never been anywhere else, in fact. My parents always used to take me to that park, the scent of its flowers has always been a comfort to me. But they've been dead for a decade now, killed in some freak geological disaster while they were in their home. I exit my apartment and I find the corridor outside empty except for a man who's blown his brains out with a nailgun. After making brief, horrific eye contact I determinedly avoid looking at him. I make my way around the mess while suppressing the urge to vomit. I run down the stairwell and into the street.

Now I can discern the rumbling sound I heard muffled inside the building. It's chanting, in some other part of the city, by who knows how many people. I think I recognize the words as lyrics to a religious hymn. That's what happens when you find out you're about to die, I guess. You look to God. Either that or you just give in to despair, when you're an agnostic like me.

By the time I've arrived at the park and found a bench to sit on Mars has been utterly destroyed. I realize that I'm no longer keeping track of seconds or minutes, not really. I'm measuring time by how many planets are left between me and the advancing radiation. I try to push out of my mind the fact I'm going to be dead very soon, along with everyone I've ever known and loved. Including the girl who liked strawberry cheesecake. At least she won't have to worry about her kidneys anymore. I try to focus on the good things, like how serene the park is now that I'm filtering the chanting out. And the occasional agonized shriek.

I pick a flower from a nearby bush and I roll it between my fingers while the blueish glow of Neptune plays nicely on its ivory petals. I look up at the massive sphere through the Dome - fifty meters of transparent plating completely encasing the city. It's eclipsing the Sun at the moment, but as I sit and watch I can see the dim sunlight leaking out Neptune's side. But the Sun doesn't exist anymore, not in any recognizable state. All I'm seeing is its ghost. I check my clock. It'll be another eighteen kilosecs before the image up there catches up.

This would be a good time to make peace with myself, if such a thing is even possible for me. I've ever been the hardened cynic. The stupid, miserable one who thought too highly of herself to submit to that apparent self-delusion everyone else called optimism. It seems like a great opportunity to let denial take over now, let myself believe up until the very end that I'll be saved by some miracle. If only I believe hard enough. If I will it determinedly enough. If I chant loud enough. Fuck those people are getting loud, even with the filters doing their best to keep them out.

No, I'll keep ahold of my fatalism. But I don't have to face it with complete hopelessness. I've got more than three hours of life left and the freedom to do whatever the hell I want with them. The park was a good start, but it might be nice to revisit some of my other old haunts while my last moments tick away.

I get up from the bench and head toward a cafe I frequented when I was younger. I pick the cafe because it's the place I can think of that's most opposite the direction of the chanting. It'll also take a while to walk, which I think of as a positive. Walking will give me something to put my mind to other than imagining what dying is going to feel like.

Jupiter has gone, too, by the time I find the deserted cafe. I slip in through the open door and slowly take in the disarray. Several tables have been overturned and most of the chairs scattered. The walls have been vandalized and there are phallus-shaped gaps in my virtual perception of the posters and ornaments. I wonder what made someone decide that destroying a cafe's decor would be a worthy use of their time right now.

There's something going around the net about the details of the Sun's explosion. I tune in and find myself confronted by the bust of a very professional-looking Titan-native scientist. You can tell he's from Titan by the methane respirators on his cheeks, a feature genetically engineered into the moon's population when a bunch of economists decided it was cheaper to tamper with the human body than to constantly ship breathable oxygen to them. Or you could tell it by the banner at the bottom of the video naming the man and his location, either would do.

The senior professor of astrophysics at the Second University of Titan, Stanley Rockfellow, cleared his throat and looked solemnly at me. (I made "Stanley Rockfellow" up. Hell if I could ever pronounce the Cronian garbage down there even if I knew what the phonics were, which I don't.) Fortunately for me there was a translator speaking over the original audio in a Triton dialect.

"I and my colleagues have been spending every moment since the explosion trying to determine a cause. While we're unclear on what triggered the event, we believe the details correlate with LRNe we've observed in faraway star systems. LRNe, that's short for Luminous Red Novae. It's like a nova, but dimmer and happens to stars more similar to our own Sun. I'm afraid it doesn't make much difference, it will annihilate us whether we can put a name to it or not. But I and my colleagues will continue to work and search for any possible method of survival for as long as we're drawing breath. Thank you, and that is all."

At least now I have some vague scientific idea of what's going to kill me. I try looking up more information on luminous red novae and I discover that Stanley is bullshitting. Nobody's come up with any real explanation for luminous red novae, let alone concrete details that can be compared to Sun's explosion, it's just a broad classification for reddish booms that aren't quite big enough to be regular novae. I won't hold it against him, though. Couldn't expect any more reliable hypothesis than that to have surfaced in the hour or so that's passed. Or in the three more hours that have yet to pass, for that matter.

It's taken a while but now I've tired of standing around in this cafe. Maybe I'd stay longer but something smells rotten-sweet and I'm afraid it might be a decaying body. Then I realize that would be improbable, it hasn't been long enough for bodies to decay to that point. But the smell creeps me out anyway so I weave my way through the furniture and back out into Neptune's comforting light.

I can infer from the fact I no longer have access to the system net that Saturn has since been vaporized, Stanley and his colleagues with it. Apart from Triton's own net, Titan hosted the final remaining major node. I feel a renewed surge of hopelessness fighting to take control of my psyche, insisting I curl up on the ground and bawl like the helpless mote I am. Instead I walk. As long as I can keep my legs moving I think I'll be alright. I'll face the end with some dignity. On my two feet, staring down the Sun and daring it to do its worst.

The chanting has grown in volume. I hadn't thought it possible to get any louder. But no. It's louder here, now than it was before in the park. My head is killing me and I get to thinking that I can't wait for the Sun to shut them up. I set my sensory filters to indiscrinimate muting. It's still getting through to my skull as tremulous vibration but at least it's quiet.

Now I'm walking toward the part of the city where my parents lived. I never really understood the circumstances of their death. A "geological disaster", that's all I'd ever find in the news or on official reports. As with any tragedy there was a profusion of nutcases claiming it was all a conspiracy by various Big Brothers but it's honestly been hard for me to dismiss some of those claims. I'm sure it's just a way of coping with a senseless loss of life, pinning it on evil intentions rather than unpredictable, unfair nature. But the official explanation, a highly localized rupture and consequent searing geyser reducing a single city block to rubble and leaving everything else untouched? Well, it doesn't make any damn sense.

The block has since been rebuilt, with bigger and more lavish buildings than it had before. The plaques call them memorials for the deceased, the nutcases call them the trophies of reptilians in high corporate positions who wanted to replace the block's structures and framed their destruction as a natural disaster in order to circumvent ordinances.

As the block comes into sight I notice smoke coming out of some windows on an upper floor. I stop in the middle of the street to watch and wonder what sort of shit somebody must have gotten themselves into - I can definitely make out the silhouette of somebody trapped in there. Or maybe they were forced into by someone else, probably with evil intent. Or, more likely, something randomly and unexpectedly went wrong and now someone's just going to have to suffer for it.

Though, really, now everyone's just going to have to die because something randomly and unexpectedly went wrong in the Sun's nuclear furnace.

After I've continued toward the block I notice that the silhouette has crawled out of a window and become a flailing, falling body. It takes a moment to shake off the horror of it and a moment more to get the taste of acid out of my mouth, then I realize that if it were between diving for the ground and burning to death I'd have chosen the former, too.

I can tell by the time that Uranus must be gone by now. I feel a greater twinge than any of the other destroyed planets brought out in me. It wasn't from loss of life, Uranus is - was - the least populated planetary system of any. The twinge was because there was nothing left but vaccuum between Triton and the expanding ball of radioactive fire. I'm going to die, and I'm going to die soon. The knowledge is like an anvil bearing down on my chest. I feel my veins growing hot. I have to remind myself to breathe.

And I breathe deeply. I practice some breathing exercises I learned when I was an intern. I learned them to help me get my mind off murdering my boss. It's still a struggle to think coherent thoughts but at least I'm not panicking.

Two hours remaining, a little more than. Have I really used up half my time already? I don't know what to do with the rest of it. Covering the last of the distance to the block would be pointless as well as morbid now that there's a body splattered on the street. Where else is there to go? I'd return to my apartment but the most interesting thing I'd have to do there without the net or a fabricator would be laying in bed and sleeping off the last of my allotted minutes.

I think I'll sit. Here, on the street. There's nobody around here, they must all be taking part in that asinine chant. I turn off the filter, curious what new chants they've been working on. Maybe it'll be better than silence.

For a moment I think I've gone deaf, I don't hear anything at all. Then I realize it's just the chanting that's gone and I can hear the quiet whistling of air currents between buildings perfectly well, just as I can hear the distant, desperate screams of someone dying.

The chanting was unnerving but it seems to me its stopping is a sign that things have gone from bad to worse. Mobs don't just abruptly stop shouting like that. At first I think I'd do best to get as much on the opposite side of town as possible, then I realize that my caution wouldn't be winning me much more life than I'd have in the first place. I stand and start toward where I heard the chanting from before.

I pass the cafe and come back to the park. It's still quiet and all the people I've seen on the way have been dead bodies. The majority of them obviously killed by other people fancying some bloody fun before the lights go out. I'm glad I ran into the victims instead of their killers.

This isn't the most populous city on Triton but there's certainly enough people to make for unreasonable crowds when the situation calls for it. (Such as every afternoon, when most people's workday ends.) It's eerie how there's nobody about. Either they're all holed up in their apartments, which I doubt, or everyone gathered somewhere to chant. And since then stopped chanting and started doing God knows what.

I hadn't appreciated just how difficult it would be to find the chanters after they stopped chanting. It's been over an hour since I resolved to investigate. I've got maybe three kilosecs left before that quaint yellow orb in the sky grows vicious claws.

I'm going to find them. It wouldn't be fair for me to die before I can have this one mystery answered. Once I've found them I can die in peace. Maybe they found an underground bunker that will save them. Or found that a planetary defense system was hidden away somewhere and a powerful magnetic force field will warp the EM radiation away from Triton's surface. If it can stop all that noise they were making it's got to be something important.

Finally I find something interesting. A stench. I let my nose lead me closer to the source and as it grows stronger I find that I recognize it. I try to place from where, and the cafe comes to mind. It's the same smell that drove me out, I'm sure of it. I keep an eye on the Sun as I go, my clock gives me ten minutes before the explosion arrives.

The scent leads me around a corner and into view of a great park. I remember visiting it just once, I had a date who was trying to impress me with opulence. She chose what must have been the most expensive restaurant in the city. It was right next to the park, ground floor. Among the most expensive properties on the whole of Triton, I heard no less than twenty times while she tried to convince me to go. Real-life chefs prepared our food from real-life, harvested ingredients, the menu proudly claimed. I can't remember much else from the date because I drowned it out with a copious amount of the restaurant's real-life red wine.

But the park wasn't like that night anymore. Where once there were flowers and verdant grass now there were bodies. Bodies and bodies and bodies. Everywhere. The smell was of poison and the silence was mass suicide. Or murder, you couldn't really tell. But people would have run away if it was murder. Nobody ran away from this. There wouldn't be little polymer cups with skull and crossbones stickers next to everybody's hands if it was murder.

There was no bunker. There was certainly no force field. It was mass suicide.

I can't believe what I'm seeing. I refuse to believe it. So I shut my eyes as tight as I can. I will the image to get out of my head, but it doesn't go away. I expect to die. I hope to die, I can't fathom any other way to get this shit out of my head.

I open my eyes a few moments later. I haven't died yet. But everyone else is still here. Dead as ever. The clock says I have ten seconds left. I put on a random song.

It's the same goddamn pop music. Fuck.

Written by Sophie Kirschner