Fire and Ice
Hysterical screams mixed with
the whoops of sirens as I ran down the street to the St. Matthews shelter. Parents
pled for their children to follow, to leave the cat behind; a couple fought
bitterly. A young man wrapped in a plastic shower curtain, smiling faces on
their heads, sat on the church steps and calmly explained that panic was
senseless–this was indeed the end of the world, and we should approach it with
a gentle heart and a willing mind. No one paused to listen.
I pushed past
him, pushed past the crying parents, and ran to the basement of the church. Was
I too late? The church had said that there was room for only forty people
beyond the staff and other important dignitaries. As I
came down the last three steps, I gasped with relief. The red doors still stood
open. I barreled through.
one of the priests, and he pulled the door shut. I had gotten the last bed, I
thought cheerfully, as the sound of the couple’s argument was abruptly shut
I passed from
the airlock to the common room, where stacked cans and boxes obscured the
walls. That food would keep us through the weeks of waiting for radioactivity
to fall, and through the months of rebuilding that would follow. My fellow inmates
stood in clumps around the room, or huddled on plastic-cushioned furniture
which looked as if it had been dragged down from a forgotten attic. At the back
I could see several doors, leading–presumably–to sleeping and lavatory areas. There
would be little, if any, privacy in the days to come.
mothers who hugged small children, and a group brown-skinned Native Americans,
construction workers, by the stains on their jeans. Businessmen
and women who stared at the walls, their carefully built worlds tumbling.
A small boy, apparently alone, sat on the floor and sobbed.
searching, I found an empty spot on a couch. The rip in the cushion bothered my
leg, but I knew I should be grateful to have anything. The world was ending,
after all. I told myself that everything would be fine–then noticed that
while the doors of the airlock were shut, they were not yet barred. I frowned. Thousands
of people still stood without, and when the flash came, they would come pouring
down, like Noah’s old neighbors. And when they saw the shut doors, they would
crush against them, break them down if they were not
How much time? Twenty-eight
minutes of flight time, the news service had said. I’d surely spent ten minutes
packing my duffel bag, and another ten running to the church. Not much, then.
for someone,” said the old lady on my right. Knitting needles flashed in her
hands as brown thread slipped through her fingers, slow and steady, like the
thread of the fates.
“Who?” I asked.
“Someone dreadfully important. See, he has his own room.” She
thrust a needle towards the only door with a lock on it.
The rest of us
would be crammed together like sheep and goats in a pen,
with our only possessions what we could keep by us. Most people, I noticed, had
nothing more than what they were wearing. I had paused to grab a few comforts –
underwear, toothbrush, paperback books– and had very nearly been shut out. I
was rich among these people, but how long would I keep what I had brought?
But I was going
to live. Unlike the fatalist on the church steps.
On my left
side, a middle-aged man checked his watch. “Perhaps they won’t hit our city. We
could be one of the lucky ones.”
the ground beneath us. Lights swayed, and the old lady dropped a stitch,
then picked it up.
that,” said the young man sitting in a cracked yellow chair across from me. His
polished cowboy boots were crossed at the ankle.
man adjusted his spectacles. “That one wasn’t even close. We might get out of
this war with nothing worse than low-level radiation.”
Another rumble, another sway of lights, this time harder than the
before. The sobbing child began to scream.
The young man
uncrossed his feet and leaned forward. “Actually, this is the end of the
I put my feet
up on my duffel bag. “I heard that one on my way in.”
“Seriously.” He smiled in a non-serious way.
“Posh.” The old
lady turned her knitting and started a new row. “The world won’t end until the
Lord ends it. Before that happens, there will trumpets and angels and signs. Then
the Archangel Michael will smite the earth with his sword of fire, and all the
earth will be consumed. And before that
happens, all the righteous will be called home. So as I sit here before you, I
know that the world will not end today.”
man rubbed his chin, and loose fat wobbled beneath a stubbled
beard. “Fire can’t destroy a planet. Planets are made of rock, which doesn’t
burn. Melt, maybe, but not burn.”
“If the Good
Lord says that the planet will be consumed by fire, then it will.” She yanked a
length of yarn from her bag.
young man crossed his arms. “When the sun goes nova and blows up into a red
giant. On that day, five billion years from now, the sun will swallow all the
inner planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. But mankind will have destroyed
itself long before then.”
Tonight, perhaps? The lights danced again as thunder, no,
trumpets, sounded around us.
on the other side of the door, pounded it so hard that the frame shook. Through
an intercom a priest was telling them to find another shelter, and hurry, this
one was filled.
I wondered if
the man in the shower curtain was still smiling, still dispensing peaceful
words to an insane world.
The old lady
started a new row. “The Lord will call us home, in his time. Mankind will have
no say in the matter.”
man took off his spectacles, wiped them, and put them on again. “Did you know
that the Norse also believed that the world would end in fire? There would be
one last war between the gods, and the Destroyer would come with his weapons
and burn everything up.”
I shivered. That
sounded too much like today.
version,” said the young man with a grin, “is the
“The snake?” Of all the animals I disliked, snakes topped
He looked at
the construction workers, who had begun to softly chant. “An old Indian myth –
I forget which tribe. At the end of everything a snake will come out and devour
the universe. It starts with the stars–munch, munch, mmmm!–and
eats them, one by one. Next the moon will be swallowed–gulp!–and then, saving
the best for last, it will slide its icy jaws around the warm belly of our
Earth. We’ll slide whole down its inky-gullet. You know, I’ve wondered if it
will be cobra or a viper. Or perhaps a fer-de-lance?”
said the middle-aged man.
exclaimed the old lady. She dropped a stitch, and this
time didn’t notice.
“A lamprey. Not a snake, per se.” The middle-aged man
pointed a plump finger at her. “It a fish–a particularly hideous fish.
Jawless, in fact.”
were continuous now. I strained to listen to the absurd conversation, to better
ignore the screams.
The young man
leaned back. “Jawless? How does it eat without teeth?”
“Oh, it has
teeth. They’re arranged in a circle, at the end of its mouth. It feeds by
attaching itself to a fish, poor thing, and chewing a hole in the animal’s
side, then sucking out flesh and blood. The fish may live for days after that,
crippled and dying, doomed.”
“Ick,” I said. I
had a new animal at the top of my list.
The young man,
however, grinned. “So you think a lamprey will eat the world?”
middle-aged man spread his hands. “I think of no more disgusting a creature for
Indeed. So this
was the future of humanity, these wise minds tucked into the ark? I rose to
find better company, but could barely walk, so strong were the Earth’s
convulsions. Something was dying, or perhaps about to be born–but what?
And the doors
still weren’t barred. How much longer would we wait?
doorway at random, I struggled through a short hallway which led to a sleeping
room. Row upon row of bunkbeads crowded,
barracks-fashion, against the walls and back. The room seemed empty, until I
heard the soft crying. Following it, I found a little girl with her face
pressed into a lumpy pillow.
I asked, gently touching her shoulder.
“My kitten. I had to leave him outside, and he’s scared, I
know he is.”
thought, sliding my arm around her thin shoulders. I lied, “He’ll be all right.
He has nothing to worry about.”
“None of us
do,” said a man in the bed above her. He slid down, then
ran thin fingers through his receding hairline. There was a resemblance to
their faces, father and daughter. “No more troubles, now.”
The steel beds
were dancing. I could hear screams. “I hope they barred the doors.”
better,” said the thin man. “The big one has yet to come. But then again, this
is all a useless gesture.”
“We’ve food and
water, and air, to keep us safe until the radiation drops back to safe levels,”
I protested. “We’re safe – if they bar those doors.”
He stared at me
with intense grey eyes. “When we leave, we’ll walk straight into a nuclear
steadied myself with a bed frame.
“All the dust
kicked up by the bombs, all the smoke from the fires–it won’t settle for years.
Decades. Centuries, maybe. No
sunlight, no warmth, no plants to feed the animals, to feed us...” His voice
“That can’t be
right,” I protested.
He nodded. “Volcanos
have been proven to drop temperatures world-wide, to cause crop failures and famines.
These bombs have already kicked up more dust than a hundred such volcanoes –
and there’s more to come.”
“You’re as bad
as the people in the other room,” I protested. “Some are saying that the world
will end in fire, or that it will end in the belly of a disgusting snake! If
you’re so convinced that this is the end of the world, why did you come here? Why
did you take a bed which should have been given to a heroic soul, someone
dedicated to building a new future?”
He half-laughed, bitter. “I’m too much of a coward to kill
myself. Like all the others, I’ll run until there’s no place to run to.”
I didn’t need
this. I turned to leave.
crackled, and then I heard one of the priests. “St. Matthews
shelter will now be permanently sealed.”
voice I could fists pounding, angry shouts, chants, and a familiar voice
expounding on the features of the celestial lamprey.
“Wait,” said a
second voice over the intercom. “He’s here.”
“Thank the Lord
above,” muttered the first priest. “Let the Bishop enter, and quickly.”
clicking, then the sudden load roar of an angry mob. Someone
screamed something about a bomb, another cried for mercy. Then more clicks as
the voices muted. There was a thud, and whines–the sealing and barring of the
Excellency,” said the first priest.
background, I heard the old lady said, “What’s that
asked the middle-aged man.
Excellency,” said the second priest
thing, like a ball. Someone rolled it in while the door was open.”
cheered the young man, overly enthusiastic. A nuclear
I felt the
flash as much as saw it, a brightness which filled the door like a sunrise, a
star exploding not forty feet from where I stood. The beds slammed into the far
wall, taking me with them. Through their bent frames I realized I could see
through the wall into the common room, or what had once been the common room,
and was now only a ash and molten stone, as if clove by the Archangel’s Sword.
The roof above the shelter, and the entire church above, the city
around it, gone.
A cold wind
swept in through the hole, icy December air, the solstice night. Through a
jagged hole, like the mouth of a lamprey, I could see the moon, the stars. Even
as the Earth was still lived, the celestial lamprey sucked out her soul.
A cloud of dust
roiled across the sky, swallowing the stars, hiding them for a hundred years or
more. I whispered goodbye as the serpent swallowed the last one, and then the
moon, turning ever deeper red, faded from view. The Earth trembled again as the
Archangel touched his sword to her face, and we slid down into the eternal
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