Previously, in the first three installments of Countdown to Annihilation! . . .
. . . the sun blew up!
. . . the era of the Snavering Lavelwods drew nigh!
. . . Iphigenia wandered a devastated world,
. . . encountering Charles,
. . . an eccentric inventor whose devices hold the end at bay!
But has he really saved the world, or simply delayed the inevitable?
Will Iphigenia save him or destroy him?
Or will the Snavering Lavelwods render every question moot?
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 the factory, to Charles’ factory, where hope may find you.
The world nears its end. It is held back from destruction only by the marvelous Eight-Minute Hourglass that stalls the passage of time.
It occurs to Iphigenia, as they race through the halls of Charles’ factory, Charles dragging Iphigenia behind him, that the man’s desire to invent a companion Hourglass that speeds time up might—under the circumstances—be the least useful invention ever.
“What would I use to make an hourglass that speeds up time?” Charles says. “What? What?”
He drags Iphigenia into the room with his Invention Bench. He stares around wildly, then stomps his foot.
“I don’t have any mandrake eggs,” he says.
He shakes his fist.
“Curse you, asexual mandrakes!”
Then he pauses. He shakes his head.
“I shouldn’t curse. It’s not their fault. I’m sorry, mandrakes! I’m sorry! But hm. I do have some sperm whale ova. I could use one of those!”
Iphigenia opens her mouth. She closes her mouth. Then she says, “Are you—I mean, just out of curiosity, as a matter of abstract interest, are you quite mad?”
“Would you mind that?” he asks her, plaintively.
“No,” Iphigenia admits.
She is too grateful that there is another human still alive.
“I mean, I’m not,” Charles says sincerely. “Not quite mad. Not really. But I’ve got a good head start! It’s the years of loneliness and the aching knowledge that the world is dead. Plus I was quite immersed in eccentricity before. Head-down, of course. That’s what my godfather always said. You have to immerse yourself head-down. Eccentric feet never got a man anywhere! But I always thought that they probably would, because they’d always be running places all the time.”
Charles looks seriously at her.
“So if I seem a little mad,” he says, “that’s why.”
Iphigenia giggles. She can’t help it. He’s just too sincere!
“I guess you could use fun,” Iphigenia says. “Then. Like beach balls and video games and whatnot. To make time pass faster.”
“Fun!” cries Charles. “Beach balls! I have a vial of beach ball extract right here.”
He seizes a vial from a shelf. It is labeled “Beach Ball Extract—-DO NOT POUR.” He pours it into the trough in the Inventing Bench. He adds some miscellaneous scraps of paper and the ur-thing of a grue.
“Brilliant,” he says. “Brilliant! Keep going, my marvelous post-apocalyptic muse! I need more ingredients!”
“Snapping your fingers?”
Iphigenia snaps her fingers. It’s kind of fun.
“I can’t snap my fingers,” says Charles. He snaps his fingers. There’s no sound at all. There’s just kind of a faint hollow ticking. “But I can snap turtles!”
Charles adds turtle-snapping lotion to the mix.
“Talking,” says Iphigenia. “Laughing.”
Suddenly Charles is crying. It’s a weird convulsive sort of crying mixed right in with the laughter and smiling and running around looking at his vials and his mixing machinery.
“Talking,” says Charles, through the tears. “Laughing. I built someone to talk and laugh with me but she fell in the incinerator and melted.”
“I’m sorry,” says Iphigenia.
“I thought there had to be other humans left,” says Charles. “At least one. I mean. I mean, once I figured out that someone built an Origins Bomb, I knew there had to be a few. Nothing’s ever totally wrong or right, not even Creationism! But none of my Marvelous Hunter-Seeker Chocolates returned.”
Iphigenia experiences a brief personal flashback involving a hunter-seeker chocolate. It makes her mouth water and her heart pang guiltily. She shakes it off.
“It’s okay,” she says. “I found you now.”
“Now?” he says. He laughs. “Now? Don’t you see? It’s too late. We’ve only got three or four minutes. If we were right next to the sun, we’d already be dead! Crisp as toast and frozen solid. And probably eaten by a Sun Swiggler, to boot. No, it’s too late. Humanity’s hour is past. ”
“It’s okay,” Iphigenia says. “You’re not alone.”
Suddenly Charles sits down.
“I wanted to invent for people,” he says. The tears are brighter now. “I wanted to make them better. But it was too late. I couldn’t help them. I didn’t have time to help people become good, and generous, and hopeful, and able to look outwards towards love and others and the sky. They evolved over thousands of years from unicellular organisms and in the end their souls just burned up, just burned up, and they were gone before I could make them good.”
“Oh,” Iphigenia says. “Oh.”
“And I—I left the door—oh God. No. Nevermind. It’s not important. It’s all gone. It doesn’t matter. I’m no better than they were, really.”
Iphigenia sits beside him. He is sobbing now. She pokes at his arm. Then she leans against him.
After a while, she says, “I did see the flyer. I mean, I never got a chance to say. But I did see it. The one asking me what one thing I’d keep. And I did think about it. So it wasn’t wasted.”
“I did. I know what I’d keep.”
Charles stares at her.
Charles is on his feet again. His tears are gone. He is beaming at her. “Oh, thank Heaven. Oh, thank God. I won’t have to kill them— I won’t— Oh thank God. Quickly. Good. Quickly. Come on. We have to hurry.”
“What?” Iphigenia says. “Why? Where?”
“Sorry!” Charles says. “Going deaf, you know. It’s all the excitement. I always have hearing trouble when the world’s ending. Come on!”
He seizes her hand. He runs.
“This isn’t fair!” says Iphigenia.
Charles stops dead. He blinks. Then he smacks his forehead in horror.
“You’re right,” he says. “I’m so sorry.”
He leans down. He pushes a button on his shoes. They begin to expel a steady stream of compressed air that lifts Charles right off the ground to bob lightly in midair.
“Right, then,” he says. “You race through the halls of the factory this time, dragging me along. I’ll give you directions.”
“Uh . . . okay.”
And as they speak, their voices echo through the halls, around the corners, through the vents, out into the vestibule of the factory.
There are coats hanging there. There is a mat where people can wipe off their shoes. There is Charles’ umbrella.
And all through the vestibule, entering the factory through the carelessly left-open door, the Snavering Lavelwods are swarming.
Will Charles use the Snaverer-Killing Bomb?
Will the Snavering Lavelwods destroy the Eight-Minute Hourglass and end all human life?
What is the one thing Iphigenia chooses to keep?
And just how literally true is the Bible, anyway?
The Countdown to Annihilation continues . . . Thursday!