Triptych of Doom

Frame by Frame

The great sky machines, like black clouds, descended on human space. Slim beams of blinding orange light, brighter than Zeus' lightning, bored in seconds through the brittle crust of the concrete cities. The tiny streets, patterned like snowflakes in the brown earth, were dug up like ants. For one brief minute the humans scrambled in the churned-up soil.

The nuclear bombs the humans sent to meet them were specks, pinpricks of white lint beneath the falling orange towers of light that cut through flesh and concrete, teeth and iron tower with equal ease.

It made Tokyo in 1945 look like a dress rehearsal.

Those who hoped the universe would turn out to be benevolent (or at least more benevolent than the mean and brutal course of human history) were disappointed, to say the least. Yet few of these philosophers had time to reconcile themselves to this new twist of Fate.

News of Total Collapse reached their computers and smart phones, yet they had little time to ponder the ironies of sending out Voyager or believing in the Resurrection. They did, however, quickly wonder why we had so blithely sent out greetings to aliens — sending them our languages, our art, even our DNA and exact co-ordinates.

Some humans had time to wonder why they’d put their faith in a kind Sky Father. They quickly re-imagined the traditional Doomsday scenario as if it were a film triptych in three parts. In three second, however, the light evaporated, and everything went black.

Bosch, The Haywain Triptych, 1502

Bosch, The Haywain Triptych, 1502

Others, further away, hoped that the blinding streaks of orange light signalled The Rapture. Looking up, they strained to spy the Gentle Lamb that would defeat the brute power of the horsemen.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Death, Famine, War & Conquest), 1887, Viktor Vasnetsov. From Wikipedia.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Death, Famine, War & Conquest), 1887, Viktor Vasnetsov. From Wikipedia.

The Lamb — haloed by gold and rainbow, and walking on water in the general direction of the Good Book — was swallowed in the contagion of darkness. All that was left in the flame-burnt shadows were the slings and arrows, the javelins and battle-axes of outrageous fortune.

A chosen few were able to cling onto their grand hopes — to their prime directives of science and religion — while others gave them up for pipe dreams the moment the pavement around them shook, split, and they fell headlong into the abyss.

Still others settled — quickly — for something between the Borg and a new kind of Deity — something like the figure on the back of Aubrey Beardsley's tarot cards: 

This enigmatic God dealt the light of deliverance or the darkness of destruction, all depending on reasons that remained locked within its mysterious — and very decorative — head. 

An Elusive Metaphor

In the three minutes he had at his disposal — between the start of Total Collapse and the slicing of the concrete and wood beneath his feet — Matthew had time to formulate a few literary thoughts. Recollections in something less than tranquility, he reflected wryly.

Looking out over the bay, he was reminded of a poem about seagulls, by E.J. Pratt: For one carved instant as they flew / The language had no simile.

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Up until now he believed that Pratt was wrong, because everything could be written about. And what couldn’t be written about could be suggested in similes and metaphors.

But not this. Death with a capital D was now so substantial that it could no longer be contained by the insubstantiality of any trope. 

It should be noted that Matthew was lucky to have even these three minutes to think these thoughts. Most people were gone in less than twenty seconds. By pure luck, however, Matthew was visiting his parents on the West Coast and was therefore spared the immediate holocaust visited upon the centre of the continent, with major missile silos immediately to the south-east of Alberta.

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On the western side of the Rocky Mountains, Matthew was also thousands of kilometres from the great populated targets of New York, Paris, Delhi, and Shanghai.

An hour before the annihilation, he'd revised a poem about the tranquility of life on his little patch of the home planet. He wrote about the marvellous paradox of spinning with the giant liquid ball while at the same time sipping coffee on his parent's deck in Victoria (which overlooked a bay and a stretch of the Georgia Strait). Sipping coffee and watching the world turn were frequent mystical experiences with him.

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The poem started off talking about the whipped cream and cinnamon on top of his coffee. This was then compared to a tug boat plying the waters. It was really a terrible poem. A true piece of fluff. The only half-decent things it had going for it were the title, "Sea-Deck in Victoria" (the poem likened the house to a ship and its balcony to a prow) and the ending, which went like this: The motions of the sea / Are small and unchanging — / Ripples on the liquid seal of Earth / Held only by the whim of gravity. Anyone reading the entire poem would be happy to know that the poem had arrived at its conclusion. 

In the first minute after he received the news about the end of the world, Matthew reflected on how apropos that final line was: Held only by the whim of gravity. For without gravity the great body of water over his parent's deck would drift outward and upward, spun by the centrifugal force of the giant rock, splashing into tiny bits of ice in the depths of space. Without gravity, the planet itself would flee from its orbit around the sun — past Mars and Jupiter, into a darkness darker than that of the recently downgraded Pluto, with his murky companions Erebus and Charon, night pilots of the deep.

It was as if Matthew was writing himself out of his own science-fiction story — and yet hurling himself into space, where all of the other stories would take place.

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Held only by the whim of gravity. But was gravity really a whim?

In the second minute he wondered if he saw it as a whim because he didn't really understand it in the first place. Like light or matter. People could see the effect of gravity, but did they really understand why it does what it does? Just because it had mass, did that mean it ought to pull other mass?

Back in grade ten when Matthew asked his physics teacher, Why?, the teacher told him, Just apply the formula. The teacher may have been right to say this. It wasn't after all a philosophy class. But was he right to dismiss the question outright, as if it had no importance? How many poets, Matthew wondered, might have turned to science if only their questions had been answered with more interesting questions?

In the final minute Matthew wondered how many other realities he had mistaken for magic and whim. For instance, the apparent invulnerability of Earth. If it weren't for the magnetic fields around the earth — the metallic composition of the planet creating protective waves that funnelled outward from the poles — the sun's rays would incinerate everything on Earth with radiation. Some alien looking down at our world might well think, Wow! What a lucky combination of coincidences! Without this magnetic field, the sun, which was otherwise an amazing source of life, would dry up the deep leagues of ocean like a teaspoon of water tossed into a frying pan.

Matthew just got his thoughts around the simile of a frying pan when the space around him was itself perforated with a short neutron blast, turning his simile into a real live metaphor. One final literary reflection — Can a metaphor become real? — took up the last remaining neuron activity in his cooked brain. As a result, he didn't have time to wonder where all the heat would go.

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