An Account of Our Last Days in the Solar System by JL Bogenschneider

My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets

Everything was beautiful: blueschist states of mind. The night sky was complete and we knew it, thanks to the old mnemonic. Mother didn’t show us anything per se, but she bought the book in which I learned the trick: a Junior Collins Encyclopaedia that included a comprehensive chapter on the subject of Space. It was simple and beautiful, the way certain things are: nine words forming a coherent and logical sentence that perfectly aligned to its raison d’etre. It’d be no exaggeration to say that my perception of its beauty was the reason I first wanted to become a teacher[1]. It’s good, in a world of uncertainty, to have things to rely on: unwavering markers that let us know we’re not straying off course. Loved ones grow old and die, civilisations ascend and collapse, mountains erode and glaciers advance, oceans rise and fall, but some things remain the same. The sentence I learned as a child will remain with me until death; it might even be the final victim of my senescence.

[1] See also: A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!

***

Miss Venetia’s Enigmatic Mnemonic Just Shrunk Unto Nothing

It looked like not all things previously thought to be permanent would remain thus, which gave me cause to pause and consider those things. One day a planet is a planet, the next it’s not. One of the essential doctrines of Buddhism is anitya – impermanence – and not that I know much about all that, it just so happens that someone once told me. Like a lot of things in retrospect, it made sense: life is a journey during which we must constantly adjust. After a few days of cosmic misery – I make no apologies, I’m sentimental that way – I saw an opportunity for what some in the profession call a teachable moment, so I set my creative writing students the question of How Might Venetia Burney Feel? The response and results were so positive[2] they made me feel a deep gratitude for the privilege of being a teacher. Moments such as that don’t exactly make up for the more demotivating aspects of the job, but they do go some way towards making a person feel like they didn’t make a total mistake when they followed their childhood dream, which was itself sort of inspired by young Venetia’s suggestion.

[2] I was voted Educator of the Year by the students and several parents wrote me kind and thoughtful letters.

***

Monsignors at the Vatican Entreat Mary and Jesus to Save Us

Ours were anxious times, meaning existential anxiety on a scale never before known, encompassing literally everyone who lived, because there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t thinking of It.[3] After Pluto was reclassified, we adjusted and stopped paying attention to the Kuiperish Belt that demarcated the boundaries of the Solar System. And not that we should be blamed for that, because best estimates are that it took over an hour for astrophysicists and amateur stargazers to notice the absence of both 134340 Pluto and Neptune.[4] Without any way of explaining what had happened[5], many of us, not including those who were already oriented that-a-ways, turned to ministers and mullahs, imams and ecclesiasts, priests and parsons, for direction. They, in turn, sought to reassure us by orating on End Times, The Rapture, Great Tribulations, Yawm al-Qiyāmah and the ever-ubiquitous Armageddon. Sandwich board manufacturers boomed and certain and particular people acted very smug. The oldest of the Marian cults resurfaced and many quarters became awash with a Virgin azure, along with lengthy and brutal internecine conflicts that came to be known as the Mary Wars. The call to prayer suffered a lot of competition and a new and literal meaning was brought to the phrase the weeping and gnashing of teeth. One of the more notable spectacles of our time was when Pope Sibylla attracted a colossal crowd to the Karakum Desert, where she stood at the edge of the Darvaza crater, which had been reinterpreted as a portal to our world for all beings – transcendental and incidental – that might exert an influence. Partway through a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, the ground gave way beneath the Holy Mother and she fell headlong into the burning hell, her last words reported to be an echoing Latinate curse. After the first few thousand devotees cast themselves into the crater in tribute, a priorly-expected but since-forgotten-about solar eclipse cast the fear of the proverbial into the hearts of the lost and the faithful, causing them to stampede all-a-ways from the pit, fatally crushing or wounding countless others and literally razing the small nearby village of Derweze to the ground.[6]

[3] i.e. The Thing, also known as The Great Disappearing, aka That Which Was Always On Our Minds

[4] Although not their moons, which continued to exist, not entirely unperturbed: they realigned their transits confusedly, like chicks inexplicably deprived of their mother, circling the nothing that should be there. But ultimately they were unaffected, a phenomenon which no-one could explain and which we all found deeply eerie.

[5] Not that no-one tried: unexpected eclipses, sudden solar flourishes and cosmic tsunamis numbered among the proposals; but the ever-present variations on maybes and conjectures did little to soothe our souls.

[6] Much to the dismay of the residents, who were already having a hell of a time, what with the influx of religious tourists.

***

Modern Values Extinct as Mankind Jives with Sebastomania

It’s true what they say[7]: the first thing to go is manners. Civility and organisation of any kind went down the pan. Children on school trips ran feral and there was chaos at airport carousels. Forget about queuing: loose milling was as good as it got and we entered a new Dark Age. In the absence of certainty from science, religion stepped in with many appealing promises, none of which could be counted on. It wouldn’t be fair to judge though, because in those frightening times – which never really ended – it was hard to care if the hope we were offered was empty, because an empty hope was better than no hope at all. There was also much lawlessness: robbing, looting and worse occurred, and I won’t go into the details but you can probably imagine. Other religions formed too: new ways of thinking for a new way of living, although it was funny how they all seemed to require the donning of robes[8] and the submission of various person-types to others, the new ways apparently being much the same as the old ways. It was a brave individual who promoted a humanistic agenda, because areligiosity came to be both offensive and an offence in many places. Science had failed us and was held to account: Bunsen burners were scrapped and test tubes smashed. The use of algebra was banned and the possession of set squares and compasses resulted in a flogging. Telescopes – it feels superfluous to say – were destroyed on sight; we didn’t need a reminder of what we knew was happening.

[7] My mother, at any rate.

[8] Which I didn’t actually look so bad in.

***

Morbid Vatacinations Enrage Military Juntas

But the situation escalated and that was when the top brass all over the world stepped in. The Cult of Nostradamus – one of the more influential sects – dominated with their doomful prophesies, sparking mass panic and riots whenever they issued an augury[9]. It was particularly galling to those juntas that had managed to contain unrest when a self-appointed seer rose up to scry that not only was the end nigh, but it would come in the form of a fiery inferno, or an eruction of the earth, or the plunging of the world into the most dreaded of dreadful nights, unsettling the recently settled, which unrest required it be judiciously re-quelled through various martial and capital acts. In many cases, the doomsday cults rose up against their military enforcers and in all those cases they were annihilated, which gave some credence, it was often reasoned, to some of their predictions.

[9] i.e. The many become few / After the Great Conflict / There will come a darkness, then light / But not for all

***

Mass Vexedness Engulfs Millions

So we got angry. Wouldn’t you? There were epidemics of rage and pandemics of bellicosity; mass hysteria on scale to which Strasbourg, Würzburg and Tanganyika couldn’t compare. Only we had no focus, having exhausted all possible targets to be legitimately angry at, so we expelled rage at literally anything: a husband, a child, a pet iguana, a shoe. When things like iguanas and shoes were no longer commonplace[10], we raged at the seriously resilient: staunch cliffs, persistent clints, tedious grykes and the ineffable atmosphere. Hordes took to the beaches and launched rockerel projectiles into the seas and oceans; others ran into the water and attempted to drown the land by kicking water onto it. Those of us left who had the desire ran meaninglessly riot over abstract plains and theoretical fields. A great many things were set alight and the smoke but, oh god, but the smoke and the smoke and the smoke…

[10] And then, much later, children.

***

Most Vitalities Expired

By this time the greatest factor in mortality rates was sui- and familicide, as those of us left fully accepted the inevitability of the situation and occasionally decided to take matters into our own hands. Death pacts were also common and birth rates were not quite zero, but the desire to procreate for its own sake had become extinct and few people were in a recreational mood. It was a period of cannot-be-overstated uncertainty, because we knew what was going to happen[11], but not at all when. The previous planetic extinctications – the agreed-upon term – were irregular and unpredictable; they occurred without observable warning.[12] At this point we could be easily venned into communitates, isolates and vagabondites. The first were those who sought comfort in togetherness; they gathered at clifftops or coastal edges – anyplace a boundary existed – to await what was to come. The second were those who saw no comfort except in being alone; they wandered far, sought out wide open spaces and sat on the cracked floor of sun-baked ferricraters or lay half-tombed in crystallising desertic sands. The third were those who couldn’t decide between one of the other and so vacillated ceaselessly; hithering and thithering, without purpose or aim, all engaged in the sport of waiting; the only thing left to do, wondering when it would happen.

[11] i.e. we were next

[12] Although, for a number of previous episodes, certain and particular people-types swore they knew, because of the way cattle bent at the knees, or from observing local atmospheric disturbances.

***

But I’m boring you. We all know the history. And how odd it seemed when we realised that history was all there’d ever be. The morbid amongst us – which was everyone – played around with ideas for a new mnemonic we wouldn’t be able to use. Some of the ones we came up with included My Vitriol, male vacuus, Many Victims, Maudlin Vagabonds, then simply Mercury, Venus, because, below a certain quantity, how much easier is it to just remember the words, and is a mnemonic for two words even a thing, and what’s the minimum number of words you might need for such a device? Is it three, six, or nine, like the aforementioned My Very Educated Mother… and just as I was remembering her fondly, I saw a dark–

About The Author

JL Bogenschneider is a writer of short fiction, with work published in The Interpreter’s House, Necessary Fiction, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, 404 Ink, PANK and Ambit.

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