Previously, in the first two installments of Countdown to Annihilation! . . .
. . . the Origins Bomb destroyed most of humanity!
. . . also, the sun!
. . . and some random aliens.
. . . the Snaveling Lavelwods poised themselves to inherit the Earth!
. . . Iphigenia wandered an empty post-apocalyptic world
. . . finding another human at last!
But why hasn’t the world gone dark yet?
Why hasn’t it frozen?
How can anyone live on, when the sun is dead?
The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the minute of the end closed in at last.
People dance in the hour of the sun
But we’re born to freeze when that hour’s done.
Iphigenia runs to the door. She cannot stop. There is a glee bubbling in her. It is practically leaking out her nose and ears. She hammers on the door. “Let me in! Let me in! I’m people too! You’re alive! Open up!”
Charles opens the factory door.
Charles is a man. He looks about thirty years old. He is the first person Iphigenia has seen in quite some time.
Charles blinks at her congenially. “Well,” he says. “Hello!”
“You’re alive!” Iphigenia says. “You’re human!”
“I am!” says Charles. He pats himself, confirming it. “I have bones and skin and meat and hair and over ten thousand individual intellectual potencies! That’s my humanity at work!”
Iphigenia hugs him. Charles squeaks.
“Thank you,” Iphigenia says. “Thank you for being real.”
“It is my honor,” says Charles, who is quite humble about being real, “and my privilege.”
“But how did you survive?” Iphigenia asks. She lets him go. She pushes him back to arm’s length so she can stare at his face. “Everybody blew up but me!”
Charles blushes. He takes a funny little step back and spins around.
“It’s only the people who evolved from lower animals that the Origins Bomb blew up,” he says. “A few rare humans were made directly by God. Like me! That’s why I don’t have any introns or junk DNA. And that’s why I’m alive!”
“Oh,” says Iphigenia. She blinks. “That must be why I didn’t blow up either.”
“What a weird way to find out you’re adopted,” Iphigenia says.
“Oh, dear,” says Charles. Then he beams at her. He rubs his hands together. “Did you get my flyer?”
This is the flyer that Charles means:
What Would You Keep?
If you could keep just one thing—one thing to last you all the empty years, what would it be?
Think on it. Decide. And when you know, if you are still alive, come to London. Come to the place of lights.
And Iphigenia has in fact seen the flyer, but she isn’t expecting questions about flyers right now.
So she just blinks at Charles blankly. “Pardon?”
“Oh.” Charles looks disappointed. “No, never mind. Never mind. It’s not important now. You’re people! I’m people! We’ll talk about it later.”
He cranes his neck to look past Iphigenia out the door.
“I take it that your parents were descended from lower life forms? You’re alone? That’s terribly tragic. Or were they older than ten thousand years? All the really old things blew up too. It’s possible, you know. Suppose you postulate reincarnation. Then their souls could come from previous bursts of Creation! That’s how that would work. So they wouldn’t have to have been descended from animals—not if their ancient souls blew up inside them and disintegrated their bodies! Not that that’s much help to them or you, I suppose. No, no, it’s not.”
Then his eyes twinkle.
“But I could invent you new parents, you know. I have all the ingredients. Come in, come in. Close the door. Must keep the Lavelwods out. That’s absolutely critical. So come in, close the door, and we can get right to work.”
Iphigenia just stares at him blankly.
“Invent . . . new parents?”
Charles pulls a set of blueprints in scroll form out of his pocket. He unrolls them dramatically. There are at least twenty feet of blueprints sprawling now across the floor, labeled, “Parent Replacements—DO NOT CONSTRUCT!” Charles then flicks his hand and the blueprints roll themselves back up. He tucks them back into his pocket.
“I,” Charles says, “am an inventor. A most marvelous inventor, if I do say so myself. Most likely the marvelousest inventor left in all the world. Possibly the only inventor left in all the world. I made the marvelous See-Through-Things Prism and the Eden Room and even the Eight-Minute Hourglass.”
“That’s not very useful,” she says. “I mean, if it only has eight minutes on it.”
Charles looks shocked. “What? What? What?”
Charles shakes his fist. He hops up and down. He gestures expansively.
“My dear,” Charles says. “You offend me! Well, you would, if I were not drinking up the sight of another living human. In other circumstances, you would offend me! It is the most useful device.”
“But why would you want it to run out in eight minutes?”
Charles blinks. “Why, that’s brilliant! An hourglass that runs out in eight minutes. You could cook a Thanksgiving turkey in thirty-two minutes. Or fail to build Rome in three hours and a fifth! Come on! Come on! We’ll go to the Inventing Bench!”
Charles seizes Iphigenia’s hand. Before she can so much as startle or shift her balance, he drags her off at a run through the hallways of the factory. Most of them are dark and scorched with the marks of people descended from animals blowing up. Some have flickering lights. Occasionally Iphigenia will see an open door that leads into an invention room containing some incredible wonder. There is the flower made entirely of lambs. There is the Snaverer-Killing Bomb. There is the perfect replica of Eden. There is a hopping Tesla Coil with a most amusing face, singing along to karaoke in the Tesla Karaoke Lounge. She wants to gasp and stare but he’s running too fast!
“But no, no, no, no,” says Charles, as they run. “The hourglass I meant wasn’t that kind of hourglass at all. This is an hourglass that delays time, not an hourglass that speeds it up. That’s not something I’d have thought of on my own, what with Fimbulwinter coming!”
“Oh,” says Iphigenia.
“It was just a few minutes ago,” Charles says. “10:52am. That’s when the sun blew up! Pfft! Just like that. Some people are entirely too careless with their inventions. Everything older than ten thousand years blew up! Everyone descended from a lower life form, too.”
“The Origins Bomb,” Iphigenia says. Somewhat lamely, she adds, “It was meant to prove Creationism right.”
“Half-right! Half-right! After all, the Earth survived, didn’t it? And we did? But it blew the sun right up. And most of the people. Blew them right up! That’s when I leapt into action.”
Here Charles stops in his frantic rush. He stands still and beams at her. He takes her other hand in his other hand. He squeezes both her hands in joy. “And it’s a good thing, too! Otherwise, we wouldn’t have met until we were dead! That wouldn’t have made anyone very happy.”
Iphigenia stares at him. Then, reluctantly, she grins.
“Also,” Charles says, “please remember to think about what you’d keep. I mean, if you could only keep one thing. It could be very important.”
Charles lets go of one hand so he can resume dragging her towards the Inventing Bench.
“The bomb went off. Everybody died. The Oomps blew up around me like so much kindling. Even the old dog himself! But I knew what I had to do. I rushed to the Inventing Bench, just like we’re doing now. I speculated on what might have caused the explosions. I tasted a bit of the boom. I recognized the sinister work of an Origins Bomb.
“So I made the Eight-Minute Hourglass! It’s an hourglass that never runs down its first eight minutes! It hasn’t even run down its first minute yet. That’s why the world hasn’t gotten dark. That’s why it hasn’t gone cold and dead. It’s the same principle as waiting in lines—it might just be a few minutes until the world actually ends, but it’s guaranteed to feel like forever. It’s the Hourglass that gives us all the time we could possibly want, even though the dread minute is just around the corner. We can live and breathe and get things done before the dark comes in, before the cold comes in, before humanity dies and the Snavering Lavelwods inherit the Earth. It’s all thanks to my marvelous Eight-Minute Hourglass!”
That’s about when the realization hits Iphigenia.
“The sun … blew up?”
Her voice is plaintive and sick. Iphigenia likes the sun. It’s her favorite celestial body.
“It was the final pyrrhic victory of heliocentrism,” Charles sighs.
The door to the factory is open, gaping, like a wound. The first of the Lavelwods has found it now, drawn to the smell of captured time.
Tune in tomorrow when the COUNTDOWN TO ANNIHILATION . . . continues!