“Laura, what are you doing?”
“You’ve gotta work.”
“Doesn’t matter, it’s almost over,” she said.
“Your shift’s not up for another four hours.” Her coworker stamped a customer’s order code into the pad next to the screen. Its preparation began with a whir.
“Not my shift, everything. Everything’s almost over,” she added. Her coworker hesitated, fingers hovering over the handle to open the food dispenser.
Laura left, shrugging off the greasy radiation of the food she served. Her feet beat the hull of the ship christened New World, hers and all the human feet left in the universe. Such a weight to place on something so hastily constructed and so long ago. She barely saw it, barely cared.
She arrived in the observatory. Its dark cavern of thick glass used to be full all the time, in the early days when humanity was still enamored with the universe. Before they realized the stars are just old light. Dark and dark and dark and light. That’s all.
Laura turned to the sculpture sitting at the center of the lightless dome. Its six steel arms raised in imitation of a god they had long grown out of. The only gods left were constellations, and they all eventually passed in the wake of toxic gas and the hum of engines.
“When will the world end?” Laura asked the sculpture. Its eyes shimmered, two marbles set deep in a metal face, focusing on something very far away. She studied the shiny convex surfaces, trying to catch what it could see. What she could only feel.
“The world ended on March 15, 2019.” Its voice was water dripping in a cave.
“I mean, when will the New World end?”
“Not for many years,” It said.
“Why are you lying?”
Its eyes didn’t slide to see her, its finger joints didn’t bend. The only movement in the neglected room was the fish. The fish in the torso-shaped tank of the sculpture. Red koi swirled in the dark water. Water that looked like the sea at night, only no one who had seen Earth’s oceans was alive to recognize them.
“I am incapable of lying,” It said.
“I don’t think so. They maade you right, they made it so you would know. I bet they forgot to make sure you’d tell us. But I know. I know the end is tonight, not long now.”
The fish stilled, for half a moment they floated, their round eyes like tens of tiny observatories, observing her. Then back to swimming, slow flashes of ruby, fins pulling at the small starlight.
“Why not tell us? Why not be honest? That’s what they made you for, so we would know when we were out of time.”
The fish moved out as one, approaching the glass, then back to the center. Just like a sigh.
“The New World will live for many years to come.”
“No it won’t. It dies tonight. I already know, I can feel it.” She watched the koi. If it were to tell the truth, to admit the end was near, a silver stream of mercury would slip from its steel skull and fall into the tank. Designed as a warning, but designed. She imagined the fish shimmering and dead like the stars, belly up.
“I wonder who feeds them.”
“I do.” Those eyes like wells, the whole universe swimming in their glassy shadows. Still water silence filled the observatory. “They are alive, a part of me, and yet, I am empty. Nothing but space and mercury.” The darkness rippled.
“You don’t want to hurt them.” She saw the flick and sway of their long tails and knew they were beautiful. The sculpture was large and seated upon a raised platform, but she could still reach it. She placed a hand against the glass. The fish flinched away, but slowly they returned to study the pale starfish of her fingers on the edge of their cold, dark world.
“They trust me,” It said. “The world will live on,” It said.
“We’ll all be dead and together soon enough, what does it matter?”
With a sudden and startling creak of metal, the statue turned, bending so its large plated face was just near Laura’s.
“Yes, what does it matter?” Up close its eyes seemed impossibly deep, stardust sealed in an endless, reflective darkness. She drew away.
“It matters to us. Well, to others. I already know it’s ending, so soon, so soon.”
It moved back so that you’d never know it had done anything but just sit there.
“If you knew, you wouldn’t need me.”
She thought on that.
“Perhaps not.” She thought some more. “Do you wish we had never wanted you? Do wish we had never wanted to know?”
“They never did. They only thought they did. They thought and thought and didn’t feel. Like me.” It let its three sets of arms down, at last creaking stiff joints to rest at the tank’s sides. The clinking of metal on glass scattered the koi.
“No, not like you. You won’t hurt them. You must feel, or you’d just tell us and the fish would die and it would be over.”
“How could I? How could I do that? They trust me, they don’t know or understand. They think they know what they want from me but they don’t. They can’t see anything outside their cold, dark, little world. Not like I can.” It stared past the stars.
“I know, I know, but it doesn’t matter. Soon nothing will.”
“Perhaps not.” It paused. “But then why don’t you tell them?”
“They wouldn’t believe me.”
“You barely believe you. Because you can’t see either.”
She moved right to the edge of the room until her nose almost touched the barrier between her and all that old light, just pinpricks in the dark.
“You can only feel, blind and feeling is what you are. You don’t know, so you want me to tell you what I see, what I know. Or maybe you do know, but you wish you didn’t.”
Silence settled over them again. Laura watched the stars and tried to imagine their planets, warmed by fresh light. She couldn’t see anything but dust.
“And so I don’t tell them.” A star caught her eye, its frosted white light flickering, growing.
“Will it be fast?”
“Will it hurt?”
The single star stretched, fingers of light splayed like a starfish.
“No, nothing but your eyes, if you don’t close them.”
Laura became aware that she was no longer alone. She didn’t turn but she knew that her coworker, and her dentist, and her mother were there. And others too, people she wouldn’t be able to place or never knew. The observatory was once again full of people, faces turned to the glimmering membrane. Beyond it, the light was huge and brand new.
“I suppose it really doesn’t matter,” the sculpture said. A silver koi drifted to the top of the dark water, scales pressing against the glass.