If we knew for certain that we humans were not long for this world, what sort of mark would we try to leave on the planet before we left? This engrossing work of speculative fiction offers some answers—and some more questions, too. Enjoy. -the ed
Sam Ninke is an artist, so when it becomes inescapably clear that the world is ending, they drive alone back to the art college in the small city where they grew up. Their favorite professor is still working there, and together the two of them take over the metalworking studio.
The professor knows a guy who knows a guy, and after some negotiating they end up with ten plates of NASA-grade maraging steel, an ultra-hard corrosion-resistant alloy. Sixteen feet by ten feet by four inches: monumental and monstrously heavy. They have to rent a special truck and hire a team of people to move the panels to the studio where Sam engraves mathematical equations deeply into the metal.
After some calculations—time and weather, heat and radiation exposure, tectonic activity and sea level rise--Sam decides on the panels’ final location: a dry, shallow cave in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, where the panels can be bolted to the bedrock beside fossil trilobites and brachiopods.
The geometries and equations are precise and clean, honest and thoughtful as the stark Wyoming hills. Sam’s professor, fifty years an atheist, whispers a prayer underneath the roar of wind at the cave entrance. The two hold hands in front of the finished installation, and hope that someday some curious new being will see it, and respect the minds that made it.
As drought carves emptiness into the American southwest, Lena Khan moves to the desert. Students come to her, two and then the next year one more. They follow Lena’s carefully charted maps to remove every single thing related to human existence. In places too dry for any living thing to grow, they clear the ground of wind-blown plastics, scrape away the soil contaminated by distant factory smoke, and place white stones in lines.
The last of the water dries up, and her students leave one by one. Lena stays, scraping just enough from the landscape to sustain one grizzled old lady. She walks ten miles every day to water, and she completes geoglyph after geoglyph: mile-wide shapes in the desert, extinct animals transformed into gigantic mythic art forms.
She sings to herself as the sun beats down on her: “All those who come after us, remember us.”
Cherish Jones is curating a dozen of the best books ever written. Her list changes every day, her heart breaking at the thought of what she must leave out. But the rocket she tinkers with every night in her friend’s garage is small and the payload must be smaller if it’s to make it to the moon.
The thirteenth book is her masterpiece, her Rosetta Stone: durable plastic pages with a passage lasercut through them in a hundred different languages. The passage she selects is a memorial, an apology—a poem, “The Leash,” by Ada Limon. “Perhaps we are always hurtling our bodies toward/ the thing that will obliterate us,” it says, “begging for love/from the speeding passage of time.”
Thirty-three lines. Enough, she hopes, to make it possible for whatever life discovers it, after, to decipher human language, and discover the tender truth of the small human lives of her people, her sister and her sister’s daughter, her friends who helped her translate the poem, her father arthritically rebuilding his home, again, after a flood.
Isaac Zavala, a potter, watches the wind whipping the clouds and experiments with spheres. He develops a special technique for hardening ceramics, and perfects a shape that prevents crushing or chipping. He makes ten thousand of them and sets out, dropping them off wherever he can, hiding them in corners and ditches and dumpsters and graves. To escape the bitter sun, he sleeps days and then, under the midnight stars, he leaves little art fossils behind him.
The consistency, he hopes, will send a message: this was done on purpose. We were more than chaos, more than noise and trash and violence.
“Don’t cry,” Maryam says, patting Ali’s chubby little foot. The other children sit around in the humid shade, some pretending not to listen although they’re scooting closer. Scraps of tarp flap against the tent poles, sending flashes of light across the dirt floor. “Here, I’ll tell you a story. This is the story of the time Butterfly first came to the island. It was years ago—”
“There aren’t any more butterflies,” Dee says angrily. “Idiot.” He’s eight, and has been in the refugee camp for four years.
“I told you it was years ago,” Maryam says. “And anyway this is a story that happened on the island in the sky where the dead live. Butterfly left his home to the south and was flying over the ocean waves for so long that he got very tired. But he saw the mangrove trees in the distance and he flapped his wings…”
Dee and Seven start wrestling, only partly in play, and they roll and knock Ali over. More tears. Maryam rights them and continues her story. In the sky above, the sun burns and the wind is picking up, and nothing lasts forever.