“Words of Advice at the End of the World”
In June of this year, my short story “Words of Advice at the End of the World” appeared in BSFA’s Fission Anthology #2, Volume 1. It is eligible for nomination for IGNYTE, Nebula, Hugo, BSFA, and other awards—I am making it freely available online on a temporary basis for your consideration. I hope you enjoy!
Words of Advice at the End of the World
by Aleksandra Hill
Asked and Answered is a weekly advice column brought to you by Constance Sienkiewicz at Gneiss News. Have a question? Email her at [email protected]
September 7, 20X3
Q. Rude realists: My spouseand I are realists and we’re raising our children (3, 5, 9) to be realists, too. We’ve never sheltered them from the truth or indoctrinated them with lies (not even ‘harmless’ ones like Santa Claus).
A few weeks ago, our eldest (‘Lorrie’) was watching the news with us when JPL [Ed. Note: Jet Propulsion Labs, which manages NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies] released its first report. Since then, she’s been fascinated with learning about apocalyptic scenarios—not just the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, but also Chernobyl and nuclear winter, pandemics, etc. Aside from a couple of nightmares, she’s taken her learning in stride and we’re proud of how inquisitive and self-directed she is. We want her to be prepared for the real world.
The problem is a birthday party that Lorrie attended last weekend. We dropped her off for a sleep-over and, just few hours later, the birthday girl’s parents asked that we pick Lorrie up! She had apparently ‘upset’ the other girls in attendance by talking about everything she’s learned ‘in extreme detail.’ The amended numbers had just come out that morning citing an 80% chance of collision, so I understand that tension was high—but they also insinuated that we’re bad parents and it’s not ‘appropriate’ for Lorrie to be learning at her advanced level. I disagreed vehemently and noted that there’s no reason to panic yet; the numbers had been jumping between 50% and 75% for the last few weeks, after all.
Since then, Lorrie’s friends have cancelled playdates. Worse, we weren’t invited to a neighbourhood meeting on impact preparations. When I found out after the fact and asked the head of the homeowners association, she said she’d heard we’re ‘not concerned about the situation’ in an impossibly snide tone. I’m at a loss about what to do.
A: Even if—and that’s a big if—a nine-year-old is mature enough to cope with the horror of what nuclear radiation does to a human body(!) and what a global extinction could look like, that doesn’t mean her classmates are. Have you talked to Lorrie about what’s appropriate to share with friends, or—as I suspect—are your children the ones telling everyone else how stupid they are for believing in Santa?
Furthermore, a 20% chance of mass death in less than two months on a global scale isn’t something to wave off. The fear is real. I’m a grown woman and I’m terrified for myself, my parents, my friends! I hope we can all laugh about how worried we were in a month or two.
But we don’t know what the future holds, so you should apologise to your neighbours for being an ass. More importantly, remember that there might not be a world for your daughter to be prepared for in a few weeks’ time. Let her be a kid.
* * *
September 14, 20X3
Q: I realised long ago that I was never the marrying kind—a perma-bachelor, if you will. My girlfriend of eight years knew that when we started dating. But when the report came out, things got (unsurprisingly) hysterical. She started packing up, saying that she’d rather spend her last days with her parents than with someone who doesn’t appreciate her. I realised that there was nobody else in the world I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, and we decided to get married at the end of September, just after she’s due.
I was the happiest man in the world until last night, when they announced that the numbers were wrong and there likely won’t be a collision. I realised I’d deluded myself about marriage in the panic. I don’t know how to let her down easy. She’s already told all her family and friends.
What do I do?
A: Most of the letters I’ve received this week have been updates—families reunited and friendships mended after the initial report, thrilled that they have more time together. I’ve been calling my parents daily, just revelling in the fact that I can see them at Christmas.
The majority of the rest were people who’d told asshole bosses to stuff it and now need to figure out how to get their jobs back (Answer: life’s too short for an asshole boss, even without the threat of global cataclysm. Take this as an opportunity to find a new job.).
And then there’s you.
Please leave her. You don’t want to be with her and she’s better off without you.
* * *
September 21, 20X3
Q: My wife and I both work long hours. We have a weekly date night to make sure that we’re making time for each other between taking kids, deadlines, and business trips. For the last few months, we’ve started each one with a randomly drawn ‘What if’ statement from a card deck my wife got us for Christmas. They’ve led to spirited debates about what superpowers we’d pick as a crime-fighting duo and what 10 books we’d want to have on a deserted island (she nixed ‘How to Build a Boat’ as no fun).
Everything was great until last week, when the question was about surviving a zombie apocalypse. I said that I’d just get bit on Day 1—I enjoy The Walking Dead as much as anyone, but I’m not cut out to live through a horror movie!
My wife got really upset, asking if that counted for the asteroid as well. She ran upstairs in tears when I didn’t answer fast enough and, now, she won’t speak to me. What do I do?
A: I don’t know what faith you married in, or if you married in any, but you might be familiar with the phrase ‘Till death us do part.’ Most people don’t assume that their spouse will hasten their demise; that might feel like a broken promise, especially when children are involved.
You didn’t mention if this occurred before the announcement that the report of an erroneous calculation was itself an error, so it’s hard to say just how callous you were. Given the probability of impact is now 90%, maybe your wife set up drawing that card because she didn’t know how else to bring up the subject.
You haven’t mentioned your gender, but are you the stronger or more protective of the two of you? If so, did she have expectations for her own safety based on that? Either way, it seems like she thought that it was both of you versus the world, and now she’s coming to learn that she’s going to be alone if the going gets really tough. We’re already seeing the beginnings, with food stockpiling and impossibly high gas and travel prices.
You should start off by apologising, then ask what she’s thinking. Are there friends or family nearby with whom she can shelter if you’re dead? People who will take her in and not kick her out—or, worse, hurt her—at the first sign of shortage or illness? If you’re dead set on not sticking around (apologies for the phrasing), the least you can do is help now.
* * *
September 28, 20X3
Q: My wife and I hit a rough patch last year. She lost her job; I was working long hours with a lot of stress. Our children had a variety of issues from then-undiagnosed ADHD to a run-in with the law. Eventually, things improved and now we’re doing better than ever.
There’s just one snag. During that time, I had a dalliance with another employee at my company. I know what you’re thinking! But my wife and I married young enough that I didn’t get to date or explore. I thought I was okay with that until my marriage felt like it was crumbling; then, I thought it was too late—until ‘Theodore’.
Constance, we love each other. He knows about my family, knows what our relationship is, and that’s never been a problem till now. It’s still not a problem, except he doesn’t have any living family and moved across the country for this job less than a year ago. He’s got no-one but me.
My wife and I had a nuclear shelter built on our property during the Ozyorsk nuclear scare. We agreed to keep it under wraps so people don’t try to force their way in if the worst happens. If it happens, I want Theodore to be there. We have enough food and space for him, and he has nowhere else to go.
What do I do? If I tell my wife about my infidelity, it’ll break her heart and she might reject Theodore—and me. If I ask for him to stay as a friend, she might not agree or suggest others stay with us, which risks the secrecy and longevity of our shelter.
Or it might all come out while we’re sheltering. But I imagine him alone as the sky turns to fire and I can’t bear that, either.
A: Listen: as of this afternoon, impact is 100% certain. None of these problems matter because we’re all going to die in 18 days. Tell your wife, don’t tell your wife, it’s going to have the same result. We’ll be reduced to smithereens or end up choking on an atmosphere filled with ash or freezing to death or starving.
If you’re not sure about all the ways our lives might end, tune into your local news station, where all they’re fucking showing is the ways a meteor can kill us. I would give anything to see my parents again before the end, but I can’t even get to New York—not with prices the way they are. I am completely alone, just like Theodore will be.
On the off chance that you make it and Theodore doesn’t, will you be able to live with that guilt? You might as well take the risk.
Update: I wanted to give you the latest on my letter (Ed. Note: September 14, ‘Perma-Bachelor’). I did as you suggested and left my fiancée. She spent most of what was left of our money after the markets crashed on a plane ticket to her parents’ place. Our friends won’t speak to me anymore and she blocked my number. I don’t even know if she gave birth.
The world is ending and I’ve got nobody. Thanks for nothing.
A: Good. I hope you die alone.
* * *
September 29, 20X3
I want to apologise for yesterday. Thank you to everyone who reached out. The news… I didn’t take it well. I’d been living with worry for my parents’ safety and the knowledge that I couldn’t afford to make it up to New York with gas prices the way they are. I was scared to hitchhike with all the stories going around about theft and abandonment. I was tired of helping strangers when no-one’s helping me.
And then a former letter-writer (Ed* Note: September 7, ‘Disastrous Date Night’) reached out, saying she and her wife are heading up to New York and I can hitch a ride with her family. I’m writing this from the back of a minivan, not quite able to believe my fortune.
You may have noticed that Gneiss News has stopped updating since most of the staff quit. Don’t worry: I’m going to keep answering as many emails as I can. Quite frankly, it’s the only thing keeping me sane. And send me your updates! (Good vibes only, please.)
Lastly, to our first letter writer from yesterday: I’m sorry for how callously I treated your question, but my answer is unchanged. Our chances are so small now, why not take a risk on extending kindness? On the chance that things work out… we need all the hope we can get.
To the writer of the update: please continue to go fuck yourself.
*It’s me. I’m Editor now.
* * *
October 10, 20X3
Update: I think my ex is the person who wrote in about being a ‘perennial bachelor.’
Constance, I wasted almost a decade with that man, always convincing myself it ‘wasn’t that bad.’ I brought a child into this world who probably won’t see the first month of his life. We left Boston for our friends’ cottage, but it isn’t much in the way of shelter and it’s hard not to despair. I can’t do much except wait for the end of the world.
By all accounts, this is a horrible end.
But… I want to thank you for your advice. The last couple of weeks—the ones without him—have also been some of the happiest, freest that I can remember. Seeing my parents with their first and only grandchild has been a treasure. Thank you for giving me that.
A: Good luck out there. For anyone still reading this and waiting for a sign: this is it.
* * *
October 12, 20X3
Update: I’m the letter-writer with the secret lover who… isn’t a secret anymore. We’re all heading to the shelter now. My kids get along great with Theodore, but they don’t know the whole story. My wife… we talked until dawn, the night I told her.
The first thing she said was to remind us of our wedding vows. The ones where we’d promised to love, honour, cherish until the Earth stopped spinning.
It was the first time in my life I’d ever been early to anything, she said, and then she laughed, and then she cried, and then I cried, and then we couldn’t stop.
I don’t know if she’ll forgive me if we survive this. But I do know that her generosity will make this apocalypse one worth surviving. She ran the numbers: we could make it 3 months with 12 people in the shelter, and isn’t that something? And so it’s the kids, and her, and me, and Theodore and his two friends, and our son’s best friend’s family and our daughter’s roommates. It’s going to be a tight fit, but you were right.
We need all the hope we can get.
A: You won’t see this, but I’m wishing you all the best.
* * *
October 14, 20X3
I’m writing this from a sheltering facility in Brooklyn, packed cheek-to-jowl with my parents and hundreds of strangers as they process us to get underground. It’s two days before impact and this is the last instalment of the column, hopefully for now, probably forever.
Where I used to get a few dozen emails a week, I received hundreds—sometimes over a thousand—almost every day for most of the last 6 weeks. In that time, you’ve fallen in love, you’ve broken hearts, you’ve grown your families and lost loved ones. You lied, cheated, surprised, triumphed. You’ve made mistakes.
We’ve made so many mistakes.
Whatever has happened: now’s the time to do our best. Love each other. Be good to each other. If you have shelter, fill it as best you can—with friends, family, acquaintances.
I don’t know what I’d advise in normal times. But right now, the answer seems astoundingly clear: choose love.
See you on the other side, maybe.