/ Sanjana Dhamankar (Writer), Allison Gable (Illustrator)
Fiction — 13 min reading time
Compassion will be forsaken, and hearts will be hollowed,
These are the wishes of the shimmering disaster,
The disaster that will come to consume us all
But little does age-old disaster know
That lives are but a joke, and we stand tall,
In the knowledge that there will be no suffering in the end,
Because we will sleep the peaceful sleep;
No hearts to break; no eyes to cry; no wills to bend.”
Maya’s eyes flew open with a gasp as the familiar song played in her ears. She remembered this body; fifty years ago, it was hers. She was sitting on the edge of a large swimming pool, her legs dangling in its aggressively blue water. Around her smouldered the remains of revelry; some fifty-odd strangers in various stages of undress, fast asleep on any surface that would accommodate them. Some were sprawled out on deck chairs, feather boas twisted around their limp limbs and chocolate smeared on their faces. Others were propped up against the plastic palm trees, their arms crossed across their sunburned chests and their necks struggling to support their heads and the elaborate headdresses atop them. The rest were passed out on the pool floats drifting from one side of the pool to the other, their empty glasses and bottles nestling next to them. It was far too hot, and bright too, thanks to the halogen warmth and fake sunlight radiating from the domed ceiling above her.
Someone must have broken the thermostat again, she thought to herself. It feels like outside in here.
Maya started, nearly falling into the pool in surprise. She recognized the honey-sweet distant voice well enough.
“Naaz,” she said, turning around to face the speaker. “It’s been a while.”
Naaz smiled softly, her dark eyes piercing through the ethereal haze that surrounded her. Her charcoal-coloured hair was short, but it billowed around her face anyway, and her clothes were like wisps of cloud.
“I didn’t think you were going to come,” she admitted.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Maya replied. “I may not have agreed with your life choices but—”
“Everyone made that choice except you—”
“But you were still my sister.”
Naaz opened her mouth to say something; for a second Maya thought she was going to dispute even that. But she didn’t. She didn’t say anything. Whatever she’d wanted to say, she seemed to think the better of it.
“I would never miss your funeral, Naaz,” Maya said, her face open and her tone sincere.
“Did you…have fun?” Naaz asked, gesturing to their surroundings. “It looks like it was a pretty good time.”
There was a painful silence for five seconds as Maya searched for the right words.
“Yes! Absolutely!” she declared, plastering a big smile on her face. “Everyone gave speeches about how happy they were for you and sang all your favourite songs. In fact, I-I drank so many Grasshoppers that my tongue’s green. And you were right, they are delicious! And the dancing, all the dancing was so much fun and not at all weird or uncomfortable or exhausting and, yeah, I’m glad that you…. that you…”
“Stop it,” Naaz said, sighing exasperatedly. “It’s somehow worse to watch you pretend.”
Maya’s smile died on her face, and tears welled in her eyes. “Sorry,” she relented. “I guess I’m a little old-fashioned to want to mourn the death of my sister.”
“There is no need to mourn,” Naaz retorted. “It was a good thing. I don’t have to live through a disaster.”
A tense quietude enveloped the sisters, each willing the other to speak her mind first. They were only a couple of feet apart yet felt worlds away from each other.
“You could’ve taken it, you know,” Naaz said, succumbing first. “The Daylily treatment. It would have been so easy.”
“Living isn’t easy, whether you live to forty or a hundred and nine,” she said with a hollow laugh. “Daylily may have ended your suffering, but it wouldn’t have done anything for me.”
“No,” Maya cut in firmly. “I traded in everything I could for this life. You will forgive me for not wanting to have half those years snatched from me by a drug.” It was a simple sentiment; she didn’t understand why people had so much trouble wrapping their heads around it.
“Please, it’s not like you were going to last any longer. You were on borrowed time anyway,” Naaz replied matter-of-factly. “We both were. I mean, it’s not like we could’ve run forever.”
“They had no right to issue an order to kill us,” Maya said defensively, an edge creeping into her voice.
“We had the BRCA1 mutation.”
“Doesn’t mean we would have gotten breast cancer.”
“The government couldn’t have known that,” Naaz said. “They were only trying to save people. They didn’t have the resources to spend on the sick. We had to die. For the greater good—”
“Don’t you parrot all that propaganda back to me!” Maya snarled, the rage in her voice forcing Naaz a few paces back. “I. am. Eighty-three. They thought I wouldn’t make it to thirty, yet here I am, at EIGHTY-THREE.”
“Yes, and that is because you were able to stay healthy. You were able to eat actual food. If it wasn’t for the culling—”
“If it wasn’t for the culling, Mom would still be alive! We would’ve still lived by the sea. We would’ve finished school. We would’ve had a life. A real one,” Maya snapped, unable now to hide the anguish in her voice.
Maya could feel it now, her heart hammering away in her ribcage, only a few centimetres away from where the bullet would hit her in the future.
“They didn’t do it to save anyone; they just wanted an excuse to ‘unburden’ themselves from the pesky mouths that needed to be fed and bodies that needed to be clothed, because doing that for us would mean that they would have to stop throwing those hedonistic balls at their chateau or chalet or whatever. It would mean sacrifice, and they simply couldn’t be bothered to do that, could they?”
But she wasn’t listening. She could feel it now, the hot tears on her face, the tears that would refuse to fall when her best friend would perish from dehydration in the desert, a desert that used to be San Francisco.
“There was time to fix it. Research, engineering, resources. We had all that then. But they just wasted it on an ego trip masquerading as a war. It wouldn’t have to come to this if it wasn’t for them. We could have escaped the disaster. Daylily would’ve been unnecessary. It seemed like it at the time, but it was not the answer; death was not the answer—”
Maya jolted awake, the piercing cry bursting through her dream and dragging her back to reality. She drew in a ragged breath and struggled to calm her nerves. When she opened her eyes again, she saw her wrinkled skin, her rickety old bed, and makeshift blanket knitted from graphic t-shirts. Her old weary bones felt the night breeze waltzing in through the crack in the curtain; she felt the weight of her spectacles on her nose, and she knew she was back. Back in her tiny log cabin at the top of the world, the only place left that hadn’t been scorched by the sun; the only place that hadn’t been made unlivable. They used to call this mountain Kanchenjunga, or “Five Treasures of the High Snow.” She rather liked that name, even though it was hard to say, even though the mountain’s treasures were long gone and snow was a fading memory.
“Maya, are you okay?!”
The shrill voice that had awakened her prodded her yet again, and she looked to her right and saw its owner. The poor little thing seemed beside himself with worry, his wide blue eyes waiting patiently for her to speak and his bottom lip quivered with emotion. He was sitting on the bed next to her, his stubby little legs folded under him and his balled fists resting on his lap. Although she wouldn’t ever admit it, Maya was glad of him. It was comforting to have company; it was comforting not to be the only person left on Earth.
“You can relax now darling, I’m awake,” she breathed, cracking a weak smile. “What happened?”
“You fainted. Again!” the boy replied, his voice laced with fear.
“Ahhh, must be my blood pressure,” Maya said, failing to sit up. “It’s okay, darling, it happens sometimes. When you get to be as old as me—”
Maya flinched. She tried her best not to, but she flinched.
“What’s Daylily?” she began with an awkward laugh. “Why, it’s your name, darling, why-why would ask that?
“Because you were mumbling about some Daylily in your sleep, and it wasn’t me. You weren’t talking about it like it was a person. And don’t even think about lying to me. You have a tell, and I know what it is, so it won’t work. Now what is it?”
Maya studied the boy’s stormy face, slightly impressed. She wondered where he’d found the gall to interrogate her like this. His mother had certainly never entertained that kind of backtalk; Maya had always been just a little wary of her. She wished she’d known more about the woman who’d demanded that she watch her son after her passing, but she’d figured the less she knew, the better she’d sleep at night. Either way, Daylily’s eyes were boring into her now, just as his mother’s had all those years ago, and they compelled her to speak.
“It is a flower,” she said evenly, the half-truth coming to her lips more easily than she thought. “A flower that only blooms for a day.”
“Oh. Okay,” the boy said, calming down a bit. “I see. You were having a dream about flowers then. Is Naaz a type of flower too?”
Maya paused, slightly thrown at the question. It would seem she was giving away all her secrets in her sleep.
“No, darling,” she answered finally. “Naaz is…Naaz is more of a star. A star that looks down on us from a better place and laughs at the pantomime of human misery. A star that could not shine its light when it was needed most.”
Daylily blinked at her stupidly.
“I didn’t understand much of that,” he murmured, getting off the bed. Maya furrowed her brows, wondering what he was doing. He walked over to the curtain and drew it open. “Is it anything like that one?”
Maya turned her gaze to where he was pointing, and time seemed to slow. She could scarcely believe her eyes. It was larger than they had predicted. It was nearly the size of the moon in the sky, the colour of lightning and twice as bright. It would be here soon. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the day after that. Either way, it was here.
The shimmering disaster.
Asteroid D-4125, aka Azrael.
The disaster that would destroy the Earth, the disaster that she had lived to see, because she wouldn’t lay down her life in a government culling; because she wouldn’t ride the hedonistic bandwagon to an early grave; because she wouldn’t take the Daylily treatment.
The disaster that had torn away her friends and family; the disaster that had crumbled countries; the disaster that was the one thing she would not be able to fight.
The disaster that she had always known would kill her.
She should have been afraid; she should’ve been throwing tantrums; she should’ve been screaming about how she would never give up the life she had snatched back from the hands of the powerful.
And yet, in this moment, all she felt was peace.
Her world fell away from her; the cabin she had built herself, the lonely mountain where nothing grew but tomatoes, the little boy with a morbid name who loved her like a grandmother.
Her years melted away; she no longer felt jaded and weathered. She felt new again, waiting at the edge of the world, at the end of an era, at the cusp of a beginning.
For the first time in her life, her mind was quiet.
Because, for the first time, there was nothing she could do. All those times, when she’d been in dire straits, however small the chance had been of getting out alive, the chance had always been there.
Hope had been there.
But now, there was zero chance of survival. There was nowhere to run. Her fate, whatever that was, was sealed.
It was liberating.
“Maya? Do you know this star?”
Maya’s eyes snapped back to Daylily. He looked back at her, eyes wide and questioning. She used to feel sorry for him. Such a little life, extinguished far too soon. But perhaps it was for the best.
This is a good way to go, she thought. He will go with memories of mountain brooks and starry skies. He will go in an instant, no suffering, only light. Yes, this is a good way to go indeed.
“Are you alright?” the boy asked. Maya could hear the alarm in his voice, but she couldn’t stop the mad grin that was starting to spread across her face.
“Why are you smiling like that?”
“You know, darling, all my life I’ve struggled to live,” she whispered. “There were moments where I questioned my own desire to fight; I didn’t know why I wanted to continue to live in a world so bitter and harsh that didn’t care about me. And now…. now I have my answer.”
“A-answer?” the boy repeated, getting decidedly more nervous.
“I was destined to survive,” Maya announced, the glittering asteroid mirrored in her glassy transfixed eyes. It looked to her as if the sky was opening, pierced open by a great and terrible shaft of light, so blinding that all other stars shirked in its presence. There was a halo around it as well, bluish-purple and so hypnotizing that it beckoned her into its embrace.
“Maya, you’re not making any sense—”
“I was destined to look upon the face of death. And you know what, darling? It’s bloody beautiful.”