Jaskey raised his flashlight high. It was growing dimmer, the beam was thick with orange, but in the particulate-heavy fog it still shone like a pillar reaching skyward. “We thought we were alone, though we did not want to be. We had our satellites, our nightlights, our spotlights, our telescopes and microscopes and Scope mouthwash so we’d be ready to kiss when we found someone else. Anyone else. And oh, they came, didn’t they? But they weren’t looking for us. Instead, they were only interested in making contact with an intelligent species. Such a family of beings is at a premium on Earth. Indeed, only one creature matched the description of wisdom sought out by the Outsiders who came to this world not so long ago. Of all the things that creepeth and flyeth, there was a single animal worthy of the attention of these old, old gods.
“I am, of course, referring to the octopus. Some of them can juggle, you know. You can’t learn that from a book,” Jaskey said. “They’re not too bad for an invertebrate, really. If only we had had less backbone ourselves. Perhaps we would have surrendered, rather than launching our nuclear missiles at ethereal beings from beyond the stars. It was like trying to take out the infamous and illusory pink elephant of a drunkard’s waking nightmare with a flyswatter. You simply end up—” Jaskey brought the light down on his head with a satisfying thump (and he stomped his foot in time as well), “braining yourself.
“Mother Earth herself is an organism. The brave and glorious octopus, the oceans are his. We were, perhaps, the brain cells of Mother Earth. And we’re dying off now, a million a day. Intelligence, at least of the human sort, was an evolutionary wrong turn. We know that now, eh?” Jaskey said.
“After all, how did we hope to solve the problem of our visitors from beyond the stars?” He nodded solemnly. “That’s right—the same way we tried to solve the problem of how to heat up a breakfast burrito: we nuked ’em.” Then Jaskey put a hand to his stomach and winced. “And like that burrito of old, the tentacled Great Old Ones just came back an hour later, this time radioactive.” He burped into the beam of the flashlight; the crowd laughed. “And we ended up more than a little radioactive too,” Jaskey said, giving the flashlight a swing to illuminate the ruins and the deformed audience—a crumbled wall here, a twisted skull only half-covered with skin there.
“Hey!” someone called out in the dark as the flashlight’s beam passed over the audience.
“Ah, a heckler,” Jaskey said. “Finally.” He turned the dimming light toward the crowd, looking for the person who had spoken. “Are you the chosen representative of the audience tonight?”
It was a woman, not quite so deformed as the other members of the audience. “Excuse me,” she said, “but I have to say I found your flyer a little misleading—”
“Oh, madame,” Jaskey said. “I must apologize for that. However, this is all that I have to offer. Failure.”
She waved the paper, a leaf from an old broadsheet newspaper, its printed stories overrun with thick strokes of black ink, over her head. “You said you were going to talk about human achievement! About getting the world back on track. How we could succeed in reaching our potential?”
Jaskey put a palm to his chest, indignant. “But madame, I have. You want human achievement? You want a success story?” He lifted his arms high and wide, “You are positively soaking in it! This is the success story. There’s no food in the cupboard, no mail in the mailbox. It is time for us to embrace failure! We have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, now we must fail our way out of this nightmare.
“What you do not understand, madame, is that we—all of us—” Jaskey said, “have a certain power. The power to achieve whatever it is we most desire, so long as we want it and wish for it with all of our might.” Jaskey stomped his foot, rattled the flashlight in his hand till it flickered as if shorting out. “What do you wish for, woman?”
Jaskey’s knuckles were white against the cylinder of his torch. He turned his attention back to the audience as a whole. “I, ladies and gentlemen, have always wanted nothing, and now I nearly have it!” Scattered applause emerged from the crowd. The woman threw her copy of the flyer to the ground and from her waistband produced a pistol. Jaskey gestured toward her. “Ah, ladies and gentlemen, meet my future ex-wife!” The audience laughed and clapped again, but the woman looked nonplussed.
“And now, for my final trick, ladies and gentlemen,” Jaskey said. “The light is growing dim.” He shook the flashlight to get the light to spark up again, but it faded back to its dull orange glow. The woman marched up to him, her arm extended straight out, the gun pointed up at Jaskey’s chest. “Please hold your applause, and assassination attempts, until the end of the performance. Thank you,” Jaskey said with a curt nod.
The woman cocked the hammer on the gun. Jaskey hmmphed in response. “And now, the grand finale!” And with that, he pointed skyward and threw back his head and commanded, “Look!” All turned their heads up; even the fish-faced man, neckless, pushed himself onto his back to see the high black vault of the heavens and the scatter of strange new stars.
The flashlight went dark, like a match between two fingers. A shot rang out. Jaskey was gone, vanished from the rusted stage. Then small envelopes, pinkish in the new light of evening, fluttered to the ground from the windowsill of one of the buildings. One landed at the woman’s feet. It wasn’t addressed to her. Rather it was from her, written in a handwriting she no longer possessed, and had been meant to be delivered long ago to a man she no longer loved, but whom now, at the end of the world, she missed terribly.
For Theodore Gottlieb, 1906-2001
Copyright © 2009 by Nick Mamatas