“Smiling at the End of the World”
The problem with Driftwood flash is that it doesn’t allow for much time to explain the setting. Because of that, I don’t think this piece stands on its own very well, and so I haven’t tried to sell it; instead I decided to provide it as a website extra for my Driftwood fans. And you can now also find it in the Driftwood novel!
“Smiling at the End of the World”
by Marie Brennan
Paggarat was doomed from the start — or rather, from the end. Nothing new about that; every part of Driftwood, every building, every person, every bit of dirt that makes up a world fragment is there because its doom finally came calling, and every last shred of it will eventually fade to nothing. Period, the end, the rest is silence.
But Paggarat was especially doomed. Most worlds are big when they arrive at Driftwood’s Edge. They shrink as they go in, of course; time passes, the reality decays, and what was once a country-sized chunk of land with a population big enough to fill cities sitting on the outskirts of this place becomes a three-block ghetto of four inbred families gasping for air in the Crush that is the center of Driftwood. Paggarat was different. Paggarat showed up one day as a farm-sized bit of land with a grand total of two inhabitants.
Bookies in the Shreds put the odds of it surviving for even five of its not particularly long years at a hundred to one.
Thing about the bookies is, they’re full of shit. Most of them take your money and vanish to a Shred you never heard of; saves them the hassle of trying to usefully measure time when there are as many suns, moons, seasons, clocks, and calendars as there are dying worlds in Driftwood. More, actually, since some places have several of each. But the bookies really tried to make a go of this one — some did, anyway — because Paggarat was going to be gone so fast they might for once be able to make real wagers on it.
I laughed myself sick over that one, dozens of times in the years and years that Paggarat was in Driftwood. Aun and Esr, they never laughed. They were good people, much better than me. They just smiled at each other and went on living their lives, as the inexorable cycle of Driftwood dragged Paggarat farther and farther in, away from the Edge, through the Shreds (there’s a joke; Paggarat was no bigger than a Shred to begin with), and to the lip of the Crush itself.
No idea how they did it. No idea how they kept smiling, kept loving each other, when they were the only survivors of the cataclysm that destroyed their world (except for their farm) and everyone in it (except for themselves). No idea how they could not go crazy when their holy words said two would survive to repopulate their world after the apocalypse, but Esr was barren and there was no world left to repopulate anyway. It wasn’t that they believed the new world would come after the Crush ground them out of existence; they said they didn’t, and I believed them. I’ve seen enough people lie about it to know. Driftwood is the end, the end of ends. Nothing comes after that. Only oblivion, and maybe not even that much.
Yet Aun and Esr kept smiling.
Call it madness. Call it denial. Call it whatever; I don’t have a word for it. Somehow Aun and Esr smiled through the years as they aged, as Paggarat faded and shrank, as the Crush drew ever closer. Somehow, even though pretty soon there was going to be nothing left of them, of their love, they found peace and contentment in that love, and didn’t fear the end. The last time I saw them, Aun was making dinner from the food Esr had begged in the Shreds that day, and she was cleaning the one room they had left.
Then they went into the Crush, and even I wouldn’t follow them there.
The only thing that’s left of Paggarat is my memory. It was doomed, like the rest of Driftwood, and Aun and Esr with it. It lasted far longer than anyone expected, and so pretty much everybody lost their bets except the lunatics who took the top end, and the bookies wouldn’t pay out to them — but that’s not why the bettors really lost. Paggarat was less doomed than they wagered, not because of how long it lasted, but because of how it went out.
Because of Aun and Esr, smiling at each other until the end of the world.