MONDAY (which is to say, six days until the end of the world, chapter 1)
The chief thing about the End of the World is that it is also, by design, The End of Times. In the run up to it, the Times, or rather – time – wouldn’t exactly end but instead slow right down and then speed back up again, all in such a short period of (for lack of better terms) time, that in effect it would both stand completely still, and happen all at once.
For this reason, we can say that The End of Times is in fact All of Time, from the very beginning to whenever it decides it’s had quite enough of that and runs itself into a metaphorical brick wall, head-first. There, from the splatter analysis, one could see all the Things which had Happened – if indeed there was anyone left.
Elizabeth Hawkinge (a good old English name) had been attempting to analyse the splatter, as it were, pre-emptively. So far, she was unsuccessful. As the Times had not yet ended, there was still a good deal of Things left to Happen, and those Things created feedback loops in her equation she could not account for.
There was a moment when she thought she’d done it, a brief, lovely moment when the afternoon sun shone through the grimy windows of her lab, and the numbers suddenly all made sense... but it was just the effect of slightly gone-bad coffee and lack of breakfast.
Elizabeth was reaching the stage where she would very much like to give up and do something else (rearing sheep in Wales was becoming an intriguing prospect) but as she’d taken a grant from the University of Sheffield under the guise of finally explaining all the bits of the Universe science so far got stuck on, she couldn’t in good conscience do so. She wasn’t quite sure how she got the grant in the first place, having never applied for it, and she was vaguely aware that any self-respecting Physics Department should have scoffed and run her out at the mention of ‘all the bits’, but she wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Especially not when it could be used on coffee, and coffee was rapidly reaching the cost of £4.50 per cup. (£4.50!)
On the 17th of March 2020, she’d realised rather suddenly that the number of holes in her equation became significantly smaller. This could mean two things.
For one, it could mean that the formulas she plugged in that morning, haphazardly and at random, had worked – to some extent. Considering that she was fairly sure one was just the mathematical equivalent of My Fair Lady, this was doubtful.
The second option was that the amount of Things left to Happen had suddenly significantly diminished. Taking into account the first point, this was marginally more likely, and infinitely more terrifying. She’d much rather those adverbs were the other way around.
Elizabeth thought this seemed like important information, and that she should probably let someone know. Nobody came to mind. She had another coffee.
Some six counties south-wards, in London, Greg Hartwell, a priest of the New English Church of Providence and Misery was standing in a queue, composing the evening’s sermon on his phone. Be wary all you who do not see the ends, for when the ends come all will be explained. Look into the eyes of that to your right, and that to your left, and see... and see... oh bollocks. “One macchiato, please, and make it extra hot if you don’t mind.”
The barista gave him the tortured look of minimum wage workers trying to live within London, but mixed with hope that the strange man wearing too much silver wouldn’t try to convince her to join what was most definitely a cult. She took his money and rapidly passed him down the assembly line of hot drinks, which ended at the cabinet littered in little sugar packets and shakers of vanilla and cinnamon used so seldom they’d long solidified into ash coloured bricks. “Only £6, not too bad. It’s £8 ’round the corner.”
Greg said this to himself, but loud enough that anyone wanting a conversation could pick it up. A few nods around, but nothing more. No matter – there was always tomorrow. This was an easy way of getting new people interested in the Church, a little comment here or there and before they knew it, they were singing Lord Bring Us to Your Sadness while doing the dishes.
He was well aware, not that he’d ever say so out loud, that most of what he preached was utter rubbish. It had to be, if he wrote it standing in line for coffee, with no forethought or reference to the Materials of Sorrow. He also knew that at the end of the day it really didn’t matter, because those who wanted to believe, believed regardless of what he would say or do. The numerous sex scandals of his predecessor, Great Priest Ant Blackley, were a testament to that.
His coffee was scolding, which meant it was still just about tepid when he got back into the hall in Tottenham Court Road where his church was located (ballroom dancing Tuesdays and Fridays, pre-school arts and crafts Monday-through-Wednesday until lunch time). The office at the back was all his, for £900 a month, and consisted of enough space for a pull-out sofa, a desk, a chair, and a computer so old it could well be worth something again.
Once upon a time he’d had an assistant he never bothered replacing when she retired. There wasn’t really any need. The only things he had to pick up since was getting his own coffee, and reading through the slowly incoming stream of prayer requests. He chose the most interesting ones (for the nephew of Mr Andrews to stop huffing paint, or for Mrs Azenber’s son to come home from wherever it was he’d gone to), and tidied up the rest with a neat little “and onto you, a minute of prayer, for the notes you sent through to come to be”. If he was honest, he mostly just picked at random.
Greg went about preparing the evening’s mass, choosing a reading from Materials, and hoping it would inspire the rather bland sermon he’d so far written. There was not enough mention of misery for his liking, and definitely not for the liking of his congregation.
IF I WERE YOU, I’D PUT IN MORE ABOUT THE ETERNAL FIRES OF HELL. THAT’S BOUND TO GET THEM GOING.
Greg jumped up from his chair in a way a dignified person shouldn’t, and looked around for the source of the voice. It took a moment to realise it was coming from his own mouth.
“I prefer not to frighten my flock, thank you very much.”
The human brain is a remarkable thing. Faced with the unexplainable, the mind creates a series of coping mechanisms which can largely be summed up as denial. Yes, there was a voice coming out of Greg’s vocal cords which wasn’t his, spoken by an autonomous entity which seems to have taken control of at least some of his faculties, but Greg was not about to be impolite about it.
SUIT YOURSELF. ALSO – GREG – NOT A GREAT NAME FOR A PRIEST, IS IT? SHOULD CHANGE IT. HOW ABOUT... RIGEL OF THE GREAT ALTAR IN THE SKY?
“I beg your pardon?” Even Rigel of the Great Altar in the Sky’s – that is to say – Greg’s patience had its limits, and as it turned out those limits were equal to an incorporeal voice making fun of his name.
It must have been something in the coffee.
NOT THE COFFEE I’M AFRAID. NO, THIS IS MORE OF A GREAT COSMIC INCONVENIENCE IN WHICH YOU WIN THE PRIZE OF BEING THE POOR SOD SAVING THE WORLD.
Greg wondered why the world needed saving.
IT’S COMING TO AN END, MY DEAR.
“The world is ending?”
MOST DEFINITELY SO.
Greg – Rigel – considered this. If the world was ending, then speaking in tongues was the least of his worries, even if the tongue was still English, although oddly accented.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
YOU, AND EVERYONE ELSE.
Elizabeth was trying to explain the problem to her advisor. It wasn’t going well.
“What you’re saying is that you’re closer to completing the equation.”
“And completing the equation is the basis of meeting your grant criteria.”
“Also true,” she said, resigned. This was attempt number four, and Professor Brown was not getting the issue. He was harassed looking, perpetually tired, and lived of caffeine sweets and porridge. There were felt patches on his tweed jacket, which in all likelihood manifested there out of the atoms once he reached the pinnacle of academia. He was what she had to look forward to in the future. It didn’t look pretty.
“I’m really not seeing the problem, Elizabeth. You should be glad! Yes, it may have been an accident, but plenty of things in the world of science are,” he spoke jovially, the way shopping centre Santas do, if shopping centre Santas were borderline malnourished and prone to casual alcoholism, “Just... try to recreate the conditions of the accident and see what happens. This is only theoretical work, regardless.”
Elizabeth had a sinking, un-ignorable feeling that the work she was doing had over-night become highly practical, but she was not going to divulge that. True, the physics department had its fair share of strange characters – Doctor Stanley only ate foods with letter “m” in them on Thursdays, for example – but she had enough self-preservation to know that talk of imminent destruction of the Universe would have her sent to departmentally mandated therapy sessions. Professor Brown was blissfully un-worried. He had more experience, more years of research, infinitely more knowledge base than her, and he was not concerned. Surely, this meant she could breath deeply and attribute her sudden and unexpected leap forward to pure dumb luck. Surely, she could stop thinking about how it would feel to meet the End of The World as a single woman in her late twenties, who still ate chicken nuggets for dinner more often than she’d like to admit. Surely…
In her lab, lined with plaster walls and with the smell of an army kitchen on soup day, the equation completed by another 5%. Elizabeth could not tell how much there was left to find, the percentage calculated from what she had rather than what was missing, but no matter that number, any change should not have happened. She’d not amended the maths since the original spike that morning.
Greg was sweating in his ceremonial robes, black, ankle-length things with heavy silver embroidery down the front. They were tasteful in their opulence, and so was the rest of the ambiance – golden candles, lavender incense – and normally this is where he felt at his peak. Within the dilapidated community hall, beige walls, sunlight from tall windows obscured by the newer, shinier buildings cropping up all around Denmark Street - he felt powerful - with a congregation which would follow him to gates of Hell if he chose to start the coming of the Apocalypse a bit ahead of schedule.
He supposed there was no need for that now, and the old ladies in the front row, the ones with their knitting, didn’t spark much confidence towards successful sieges regardless. Then again – those needles looked wickedly sharp.
Greg was sweating because from time to time, when he meant to say something, a rather different sentence would emerge.
And so, his toast of “stand all ye who welcome the coming of the Lord, our Master, and become his flock”, was instead:
“Stand all ye who SET YOURSELF ON FIRE FOR THE COMING OF OUR LORD, HER GREAT EXCELLENCE, PURVEYOR OF SOULS, THE PRINCESS OF DARKNESS, MAIDEN OF THE PIT OF VIPERS, SHE WHO ENDS IT ALL.”
Greg had just managed to turn his head away from the microphone when the Voice took over, so only the very front row of knitting ladies looked at him funny. A few checked their hearing aids.
“Are you having fun there?” he hissed, having turned away from the crowd to walk to the tabernacle. A low chuckle emerged from his throat with no involvement of facial muscles. The Voice was excited, unfamiliar with crowds, with the smells of so many different wonderful delicious people all in one place, all ready to listen, all sitting so pretty and patiently and waiting, just waiting...
Greg didn’t know how he knew any of that. He shouldn’t have known any of that. But there was something – at the back of his mind, at the bed of his lungs. Where him and the Voice were fused, and its feelings seeped into his.
“Only this is my job, so shush yourself, would you?”
This was, of course, the wrong thing to say. He knew it as soon as the words were out, how the Voice took the challenge and magnified it, made it into something to win at and concur. Clearly, the Voice didn’t like being told what to do, and clearly it liked to have the last word very, very much.
When tiny old Mrs Willoughby was told “For I have received from the Lord WHAT YOU SHOULD WELL GO AND CHOKE ON” as Greg was giving her Eucharist, he decided to cut the mass short, telling the congregation to go and see the Lord’s presence in the everyday life outside of the walls of the Church. That’s what he meant to tell them, anyway. What came out instead was words he’d never dare repeat in polite company.
In Elizabeth’s lab, another 1% creeped up. She watched as the numbers on her computer changed when they had no business changing, the lights outside slowly dimming, the sounds in corridors around her becoming less and less frequent until only the PhD student who never slept remained.