Toynbee’s Cold Hell

...the ghost of tomorrows forgotten...

Story by
Aplo
Artwork by
Leo Morey

The man with bright eyes saw you from a million miles away. You could not see him; you could see no more than a pin prick of hopefulness in those wide eyes, some distant star in some system too far away and too quickly moving to ever reach. But he saw us; he saw all, and he was on the way then.

I first came to know about this man through a rather odd happenstance. I was strolling down the street, watching the tip of my leather shoes lick the air, dust and grime, as I often did — not wanting to make eye contact with people, you see — and came across something underneath my very toes, my very eyes. Underneath everyone’s but… only I could see it. Only I looked. It was embedded in the chipping away concrete, the poor excuse for a sidewalk. It was embezzled underneath, in a row of tiles just like it. Toynbee Jupiter 2001 was delicately inscribed. I pried at the edge with my fingernails. It crumbled away like soft terracotta clay, and yet here it was underneath the concrete, still surviving. A spider was now lazily tracing its way through the ‘y’. 

I fear that he is God, that he is what we mislabelled as God. For he is not good, but hulking. Not only watching now, but coming. I see him; through the static of my dreams, in the shifting boards of my house. He is rumbling them. I hear him, in the screams of the stars and the distant lonely winds. He is the one blowing them, from across the cosmic sea. It is only a matter of time before his vast claw snaps. I am whittling away my nails, my flesh, my bones. Whittling away my time, hoping I will get to the final sliver and knock myself off before he arrives to open the gates of hell, here.

The next clue came one week later, when I rushed home to my old post-war boom house. I was studying some of my arcane books which I kept in the basement. It was a hole of a place, wholly unthere. One would not have known that the floor was not dirt, that the walls were not one thousand years old. And chipping away in the concrete of the basement barrier, I found the same: the same terracotta tile, the same inscription. Toynbee. A month later I found him pouring through my books, an old historian that said that those who do not run to the future would lose it. Where were we running now, yet? Or — was something running to us? Jupiter, of course: the great god, the god of gods, to the romans, the kings of kings. He was running back to us, for and from our future. I did not know it, but I felt it to be true. A darkness had descended in the sky, that would keep people inside their homes. Everyone knew and was waiting for some great something. It was not — it could not be — seen. It was only there. It was only, unavoidably, unstoppably there. 

2001. That disastrous year, now long since passed: now long since passed by 2001 more years, which could surely not be a coincidence. The towers fell, the societies crumbled, and those wishing darted out. Out of society, en masse, with the invention of the new time machines. It was not an invention, as we humans liked to claim of everything, but a discovery: a rip we would liked to have not credited ourselves with performing. Something was gone, and a hole was in its place. What was gone? Was it gone, forever? Not wanting to doom themselves to the same perpetual fate of the past, they instead voyaged distantly: far gone, long gone into the future. How far away? To the mirror time now? Nobody knew. The wormhole time portal was a one way ticket, without known speed or destination. Perhaps it dropped them off of a cliff, sucked them into a blackhole. But they volunteered; they were the ones who would rather die than live, and this, perhaps, was the danger of their breed. They got what they wanted.

At the ends of the Universe, a creature wept. He did so without crying, for he was now freezing: each fibre of water in his body was now freezing, from warmth torn too far apart, time run finally too far down. He fell here off of the High Cliff, from whence they all came, and he laid dying, the cells of his body bursting and solidifying like twisted concrete, his mind going too but not fast enough; no, as the water fled, as the light left, it too slowed, slowed to a stop, and it was in his last moments that he was doomed to a time dilation, an ever expanding nightmare of dreamt reality. He would forever be stuck here: in hell. They were wrong. It was not hot. How he prayed for a fire to consume him, at the least. How he prayed for an explosion of time, a theatrics of his death, but no. It only stopped and slowed. He only was lost. He sat, shattered, crumbling, aware in his one long instant of all he had left (in his stopped time) as they all shattered, crumbled, crawled, snaked, above him. He was on the bottom of a great cliff, and the great delivery of bodies only kept coming. Over time, over a long time, their warmth was enough. But barely. Barely for, in a thousand years, the formation of one gruelling creature, hardly no fire inside, in the endless open void. 

It was an odd thing, to turn on the television and to sense only black; only the lost emptiness, as it all drifted further away, dooming us to lonesomeness and endless fates. Pushing each of the planets, each of the races there must be, inside themselves. This must have been how it all began. And where was the one to start it all again? Coming. Though the static left the electronics, it roared through my closed eyes, through my dreams, through every moment I had in the day, in the night, of a stray paused breath. It stopped my heart each time: overtook me. The potent drug of a millennia of mind trapped in one instant, one word, one voice. All of it, all of them, fighting and clawing and scratching over each other to get through. To fit through just one pin prick it never could, never could, but must. This was a creature far more than it appeared. Far more than its own. And it was coming. Cruel eyes, hardened like Europa stared through to me. The pupils were not there, for they need not see in the darkness, only sense. Sense what was coming. It felt by warmth. And when it drew near, it ate out your own, to sacrifice to the pent up energies burned out but drawing blood inside. The ghost of tomorrows forgotten. There can only be but one.

I woke up, pooling in sweat. I tried to vomit, but my own throat gasped from the icy air. I felt my own chest: dead cold. My hands did not feel the warmth in my bed from any living thing. I felt hardened. I rushed to the bathroom. My legs creaked from disuse, as if about to shatter. To topple like a pine tree weighted with snow. I looked at my face in disgust, picking at it. Solid. It was caked in ice: a hard sweat clinging to me. The creature was in my dreams, and reaching out to reality, out of my mind out through my ear and onto my head. Here was its cold paw print, grasping at my eyes and trying to bolt them stiff. I flushed my own head in the toilet just to feel some singing warmth.

I sat on the edge of the bed, looking longingly out my lonesome window, the dirty balcony. The stars were far, were few, were dim. They were drifting further. And among them two stood out; the two demon eyes of the thing fast approaching. Of us, flung too far into the future, and crawling desperately to find a way back. To punish, to replace? I could not be sure. But each day the night turned blacker, when it came. Each of these nights the stars bled deeper apart from each other and into themselves. People drew themselves in, waiting, waiting. Waiting, waiting. I crept outside. The air was dryer, the water and the snow in it farther apart. It was deadly cold, in the absence of any of it. I plunged off of the balcony. Better final than to not know.

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