Sunsets and Hamburgers
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Science Fiction

Gareth Lyn Powell

Gareth Lyn Powell lives in the South West of England. His work has appeared in Interzone, Aphelion, Quantum Muse, and Nowa Fantastyka. His story 'The Last Reef' was long listed for both the BSFA and BFS awards for Best Short Story, and came sixth in the Interzone Reader's Poll for best story of 2006. His first collection of short stories will be published by Elastic Press in August 2008, and his first novel will be published by Pendragon Press in 2009.

Sunsets and Hamburgers won a Firebrand Great Fiction Award from SFreader.com. Congratulations, Gareth!

Further details can be found on his website.

Click to listen to a reading of this story!
1.

My first thought is that I don't remember dying. They tell me nobody does. It's like trying to catch the exact moment you fall asleep; when you wake, it's gone. You may remember feeling tired, you may even remember starting to fall asleep; you just don't remember the transition, the actual moment when you passed from one state to the other.

And then they resurrect you.

One minute you're nowhere, nothing. The next you wake up coughing and thrashing in a tank of blue gel.

2.

My stomach's full of gas and my bowels full of water. My brain feels like melted polystyrene. Every thought hurts and every breath is an effort.

The robot doctors try to reassure me. Everything's going to be okay, they say. And then, just when I'm beginning to wonder if the worst is over, they take me out and show me the sky.

What's left of it.

3.

The doctors tell me that I've been dead for billions of years. They give me pamphlets to read, films to watch.

Billions of years!

I'm struggling to imagine it. Every time I get close, I get breathless and my hands start to shake.

4.

I have a few confused memories: faces, names of places, that sort of thing. I have an image of a sash window on a grey and rainy autumn afternoon, and bass-heavy ska playing somewhere off down the dull street. And after that, there's nothing. I fall to my knees and begin to weep.

The doctors comfort me. They're pleased with my progress.

5.

There's something dreadfully wrong with the sky. They try to explain it but I have trouble understanding.

When I was alive, I worked for a financial software company. I worked in their marketing department, writing letters and making calls. In my spare time, I liked sunsets and hamburgers, movies and bottled beer.

It's something to do with black holes, they say, pointing at the blank sky.

Like everyone else, I skimmed through A Brief History of Time once or twice, but I've got to admit, I'm struggling with this one.

6.

Today, the robot doctors introduce me to Marla. She has feathers in her hair, and her clothes are made of vinyl.

They show us to our new home. It's small but comfortable; reassuring, in a simple, everyday kind of way. There's a kettle and a toaster, a stereo and a CD collection. There's even a TV.

'You can stay here as long as you need to,' they say.

The porch looks out over a sandy beach. Wild palms sway in the offshore breeze.

7.

We've been here a couple of weeks now. The pamphlets are starting to make sense.

The sky's dark because the galaxies have flown too far apart and the stars have exhausted themselves. In order to survive, the remaining people huddle close to the embers of the left-over black holes.

8.

We're sitting on the porch watching breakers crash and slither. It's late in the evening and there's music drifting out from the kitchen.

Marla's upset.

The doctors have given us a new pamphlet.

Throughout history, it says, love has served a serious evolutionary purpose. It compels us to look after those around us, and to allow them to look after us. This is the root of community, and the groups that survived and prospered were those with the most love.

It goes on to explain how they matched our personalities, made sure our genetic traits complemented each other. Apparently Marla and I are over ninety-eight per cent compatible.

And they want us to have kids.

9.

When I was a student, I used to like to spend the afternoon in a city centre bar reading the newspaper, doing the crossword and watching the world go by. It was like meditation, the mind roaming free; the rattle of coins in the fruit machine, the hum of the pumps and refrigerators, the low murmurs of the bar staff.

And when I finally left the bar, just around the time most people were finishing work for the day, I'd stumble out with my senses heightened. Suddenly, everything seemed significant; I'd want to write poetry or paint something, just to capture this perfect feeling. But I never could. My efforts never stood up to the critical light of the following day.

Sometimes now at night, when I wake up beside Marla, I have a similar feeling; everything feels sharp and unreal and meaningful, as if I'm waking up in a movie and everything's somehow symbolic.

If I keep my eyes shut it passes, after a while.

10.

Babies cry out in the night. We nudge each other awake. There's a noise outside. Marla sees to the children while I go out to investigate.

Those damn trilobites have been going through the bins again. They skitter around the beach in the dark, some of them as big as my foot.

Overhead, there's a fine selection of moons.

11.

We've been here for a year now. Every morning, there's a cardboard box of food waiting for us on the kitchen counter. Some days it's mostly fruit, other days it's fresh bread and cold meat. Today, it's a jar of instant coffee and a pack of Silk Cut.

When I unscrew the lid on the jar and tear the cellophane from the pack, the sticky familiar smells hit me like an adrenalin rush.

The coffee smells like heaven. Before I've time to think, I've made myself a steaming cup. And damn, it does taste good. It's like visiting a town where you used to live, or finding a fiver in the pocket of a pair of jeans you haven't worn for a while. The cup feels natural in my hand, comforting.

I drink about a quarter of it before I have a strange feeling in my stomach.

I leave the cigarettes where they are, but I can feel them watching me.

12.

Every now and then I have a doubt, like a shadow moving in the corner of my eye.

Have we been seduced by the sand and palms into believing we're living a perfect life, here on the beach, with the kids?

They're growing up strong and clever. They have their mother's looks and their father's restlessness.

But I can't help feeling that we were pushed into having them, like we were selected to breed the same way you'd select a couple of pedigree cats.

Is that why they brought us back? To have kids?

Has something so catastrophic happened to humanity that it needs to resurrect untainted individuals from the past to repopulate the Earth? Are our descendants all shooting blanks?

13.

One day it hits me.

When they brought us back, they must've made alterations to our minds. I don't know how or why, but I think they tailored us as they resurrected us.

I look at Marla and know the urge I have to make babies with her is stronger than anything I felt in my former life. Back then, I used to panic if you put me in the same room as a baby. Now, I can't seem to get enough of them.

How can I talk about any of this with Marla? She's already three months gone with our fifth.

'You'll stop loving me if I get any fatter,' she says.

14.

The doctors have disappeared. They don't answer our calls. The hospital is deserted, empty. It's almost as if they've fulfilled their task and taken their leave.

Marla doesn't like it. It gives her the creeps to be suddenly alone.

15.

They left us a final pamphlet, pinned to the door. But it doesn’t make for happy reading.

It tells us how vicious wars erupted as the final stars began to gutter. It tells us that huge reserves of life and power were burned as various factions competed for survival. Stealth ships slipped like sharks through the woven fabric of the universe. Titanic energies were squandered in futile attacks.

And now here we are, in our cabin by the sea. A little bubble world, a few miles in diameter. Fragile and lost in the encroaching darkness.

16.

We're close to the end of everything. Beyond our snow shaker bubble of greenery and life, the universe is a sterile wasteland. There may be other survivors in other galaxies, but they're irretrievably lost to us now, pulled away into the expanding darkness so that not even their light can reach us.

Eventually, the black hole that provides the energy for our heat and light will evaporate. We'll have a few years left after that, but they won't be quality time.

We'll go down with the dying universe. We'll see the final wisps of the Milky Way torn asunder; we'll feel the ground begin to rip beneath our feet, feel our bodies begin to break apart.

And what happens after that?

On the face of it, it looks like time ends.

But I have a hunch, a feeling, that the doctors brought us back to do more than simply witness the death of creation.

If that's all that they wanted us to do, why did they encourage us to have so many kids?

17.

In my former life, I used to read science fiction now and then. One evening, in bed, I try to explain the attraction of it to Marla. Beyond the sand, the sea stirs restlessly.

I want to tell her about the joy of imagining strange new worlds filled with bizarre and dangerous creatures, of watching mighty armadas blow hell out of each other, but she flicks her hair dismissively and I know I'm not getting through.

Through the window, two of the brighter moons linger on the horizon, one gold and the other amber. Their reflections shimmer on the dark water.

I tell her that my grandfather dreamt of going to sea, of finding fortune and glory in mysterious far-off lands. It wasn't my fault that by the time I hit my teens, the few remaining earthly frontiers were already full of holiday show camera crews and Australian gap year students. There were no mysterious lands left, save those that lay in the books I read.

'I guess what I'm trying to say is that all my dreams seem to be coming true,' I say. I want her to understand that before I came here, the local library was my only frontier.

She looks at me for a long time, and I honestly can't read her expression. Then she turns over and wraps the sheet around her shoulders.

My legs are left sticking out. I get goose bumps.

18.

Marla says I think too much. She thinks I'll poison the kids by telling them that there's no point to their dreams and ambitions, by telling them that the universe is ending.

But deep down, I know there's hope.

19.

I'm sloshing through the surf, wondering why the doctors have gone to so much trouble to replicate coffee, cigarettes, and a tropical paradise, why they resurrected a breeding pair of homo sapiens.

And then the three juggernauts appear in the sky.

They must each be half a light year in length. As we watch over the next few hours, the effect of their mass scrambles the remains of our solar system, but not before their shuttles swoop down and snatch up our little bubble biosphere from the ashes.

20.

It's still half dark when I rise at noon and take my coffee out onto the porch. The kids are playing in the gloomy sand. It feels like the high end of summer and the air's stale and used. A vast vault arches overhead. Lights in its roof look like brightly burning stars. Around us, on the cavern's floor, we can see the glow of other collected bubbles; they shine green and blue in the gloom. I wonder who they contain, and if we can reach them.

21.

This will be my last diary entry.

These giant ships seem to be arks, of a sort. I can't tell you where there're going, or what we're going to do once they get there. I can't even tell you why we're here, alive, at the end of time.

All I can do is repeat the same conclusion that every man or woman has reached since the dawn of time: I don't know why we're here, or how long we've got, but we're here.

And we're going to survive.

copyright © 2006, Gareth Lyn Powell