The Arrow of Time

Author’s note: This was a short story I wrote for a competition in sixth form college. I won the competition with a cheery story about death. Lovely! Enjoy…

"We’re here," I smiled, as the screen door slid open.

Jack coughed, looking more pale than ever, blinking furiously.

"Hi," he rasped, his voice barely intact. That was clearly painful.

"We made it, Jack," I said, placing my palm on his forehead. He’d only just been unfrozen, but that raging fever was still there.

The computer, before I’d shut it down to save power, had given him fourteen hours to live, assuming the lymphoma was left untreated; besides, getting treatment now was out of the question.

"Made it where?" he whispered, still in a daze.

"Back home."


"Back to Earth."

"You are joking," Jack whispered.

"I saved the best until last," I grinned, popping the chocolate cake onto a china plate—the largest of the three we had on the boat—and slicing it neatly into two slightly asymmetric portions. "You get the bigger half," I told him.

He spooned a little into his mouth, and swallowed. "It’s delicious," he beamed.

"It’s your recipe," I told him. "I’m surprised by how well it came out."

"Is it fresh?"

"It was, around five billion years ago."

Jack chuckled. The boat’s stasis unit had done us well: yesterday (two point two billion years ago, watching our galaxy collide with the Andromeda galaxy from a hundred quintillion miles away) we’d had some then-freshly acquired fish and chips, from his favourite place on Railway Road. The day (four point one billion years) before, it had been a very strong curry.

And now, here was the last supper: a devil’s food cake with cream, strawberries and champagne to boot. Still moist, without a hint of pungency from the billions of years it had spent sealed in a box, its personal Arrow of Time frozen with the technical and chemical wizardry of our ingenious little race.

"I wonder if there are any people still out there," I wondered aloud.

"I suppose so," Jack coughed, clearing his throat as best he could and whispering for the best part. "Just not here."

"What about tourists?"

"Tourists?" He coughed again.

"Well, y’know. Come and see the ashes of the cradle of humanity, I suppose."

"Does that mean we count as tourists?" he chuckled, the snorts giving way to rasps as he dealt with another coughing fit and continued eating.

"We certainly came a long way." I smiled, putting aside the quiet pang of regret in the pit of my stomach. "But I’d still say we made it back home."

"We wouldn’t…" Jack spluttered, his voice becoming increasingly cacophonous, "I mean, we can’t recognise it. Continental shift, you know."

"I know." And the fact the Earth had probably been molten and cooled into a distorted parody of itself, beyond recognition, when the Sun had blossomed in its old age: we’d missed a lot. If humans had had any sense, they’d have packed up and gone in search of a new home eons ago–we’d never know if they had. If they’d ever been able to put aside their myriad petty disagreements for the greater good.

Jack continued coughing, the convulsions in his chest becoming more pronounced.

"Are you OK?" I asked him. Stupid question. He has hours to live.

"No…" he belched, sliding from the chair and grasping the edge of the table.

I shot around the furnishings to his side, and hoisted him back to his feet.

"Calm down," I whispered to him. "Breathe slowly."

"I’m trying!" Jack snapped. "I feel terrible."

"OK," I said, taking his temperature with my palm again. Hotter than before. Might as well make the last act a good one.

"Let’s go outside."

"It’s not bad, is it?"

Carrying Jack through the biosphere’s airlock, followed by the climb out of our little crater, and the walk up the little ridge had been a little more than exhausting. One earth gravity after five billion years in none was a shock to the system, to say the least.

Maybe it was the rapidly depleting oxygen. Or Jack’s spacesuit, added to mine.

God, he was heavy.

I half-laid, half-dropped him to the ground, feeling the thump through my boots but not hearing a thing.

Nothing. At all. No wind, no atmosphere on this dead Earth.

By now, we had around twenty minutes of oxygen left in our suits, enough power for twenty-five. All the boat’s navigation systems were kaput, and we didn’t have any fuel, battery charge or rockets to get off the ground anyway.

This barren, silent rock was home once more. Like it or not. And our grave.

"It’s funny," I said, sitting as best as I could in this bulky antique. Next to Jack, as he stared upward, motionless. Silent. "I felt like we’ve come so far, we could live forever."

Silence. Still.

I peered to my right at the profile of his face, the strong nose, the pasty skin distorted, bulging in the domed pressure helmet. Fixated by the Sun–what was left of it.

A tiny little ball, no bigger than Earth herself, of hot, dense carbon and oxygen: the Sun was still the brightest thing in the sky, but the dead core, the white dwarf, too feeble in its senescence to provide anything but a fraction of its original light and warmth to Earth. Depressing in its apparent insignificance, yet beautiful in the way it effortlessly illuminated the stunning nebula it had thrown off in its later life.

It was a trick of fate, that Earth had survived at all: some, five billion years previously, had proposed that the cradle of humanity would be swallowed when the Sun ballooned to the "red giant" phase. Engulfed, liquefied, boiled, ionised. Miraculously, there was this left—and we were there to see it.

Another miracle. We were here. Me, and my Jack Loftus. His face was flattered in dwarflight, bringing out his softened features and casting a little flare on the cornea. Jack’s eyes were glowing in the dwarflight.

His head tilted, slightly, to face me. A curl, ever so slight, on his lips. Jack was smiling.

"It beats the Dignitas clinic, doesn’t it?" I asked him. He laughed at that—not a sound, but a quaver in his chest and an increase in the curl of the lip, a blink. A tiny snort down the radio. My Jack was still there, and he laughed at my lame little joke.

"We’re lucky to have made it back here." I found his hand in mine, and clasped it. The thought that the insulation was working properly crossed my mind briefly—the ground below us, having been almost certainly melted and re-cooled over millions of years, was now a few degrees above zero. Absolute zero.

And I was warm and toasty, holding Jack’s hand through a spacesuit. We hadn’t been killed by an explosive boiling of frozen material: this quaint antique tech had served us well.

"It’s astonishing the batteries on the boat lasted this long," I muttered to myself, and Jack. "And the sails are still in one piece. And we didn’t crash into anything." I breathed, and smiled again at him. That was a definite tear in my left eye–I’d promised myself I wouldn’t tear up!

"Remember, Jack," I whispered, blinking the tear from my eye, "when we ran through the fields? Ran, together, faster than anything? Through the hills? Up the hummock?"

A single, slow, blink. I took that as a "yes."

"This reminds me of it. It’s not the same, but… y’know. There’s no place like home."

Another snort, another smile. A single tear. I couldn’t wipe it clean, not now, not with each of us in a self-contained insulated antique pressure suit.

"Remember how we’d run, and we’d run, and we’d run," I continued, slowly, accentuating my voice, trying to avoid tearing up again, "and we’d run until our lungs burned, and our legs felt like jelly. And no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t keep on going."

No matter how hard you try, you can’t run forever. Not from life. Not from death. Not from the Arrow of Time.

"We tried, though. We saw Saturn."

The last time he’d been able to muster up the strength to move around the boat himself. "The rings are beautiful," he’d said, "it’s like watching the bluest, freshest beach you’ve ever seen, churning in the tide."

My Jack had never been a poet.

"And the Pleiades… and the galaxy, the Milky Way… I think that was my favourite."

We’d had our glorious dawn, our morning filled with four hundred billion suns; tumultuous, static spiralling as the galaxy merged with its neighbour, Andromeda. Threads, wisps, each consisting of millions of stars, passed through each other, collided, coalesced, span into a whirling cosmic disk of elliptical beauty, a tumbling crucible of trillions of suns. Only yesterday, it seemed—and was, biologically.

"Do you remember how they said we were crazy? When I first built this boat, said we were going to see the stars? Just as you’d dreamed?"

They had. They’d said I was mad. Give him another five years in stasis, and they’ll have found a cure. Trying to explain was difficult, saying goodbye even harder–seeing Maureen for the last time, back in the departure lounge at Heathrow Airport, had been particularly unpleasant.

The thought struck me that if I’d been smarter—told the computer to search for signs of human life, and follow them—we might find help. Maybe, just maybe, you could find someone, or something, capable of treating a five billion-year-old disease in a five billion-year-old human.

On the other hand… after all the things we’d seen, the billions upon billions of wonders of our galaxy, maybe not. Our final excursion had certainly been worth it.

I checked the oxygen gauge, then shut it off. Five minutes. That was all. I didn’t want a countdown to our deaths.

"Wouldn’t change it for the world," I heard Jack whisper, ever so quietly.

"No regrets." I turned to face him again, and clumsily gripped his glove in mine.

He smiled.

"Thank you."

We looked up, again, out at what remained of our home, and waited.

Waited for the Arrow of Time.

THE ARROW OF TIME is a short story written by Jonathan Rothwell. Text © Jonathan Rothwell 2011. This story is NOT licenced under CC-BY-NC: see its special copyright licence.

Thank you for reading.