by George Potter
Mary Ellen sets the table with her usual care and eye for detail: the crystal sugar jar, filled fresh with Domino dots. The two piece creamer set her daughter gave her for Christmas, sterling silver, one for half and half, the other for skim milk. A similar, smaller silver decanter, this one filled with just melted dark Bavarian baking chocolate, in case her guest has a taste for mocha.
Her guest, she says to herself, and smiles.
The tablecloth is her best, of course; the durable white linen inherited from her mother and lovingly cared for. It's not something she whips out for any old company. The fact that the last few years have seen sparse company is beside the point. The white linen whispers special from every thread, every carefully maintained fiber. She wants her guest to know how much she appreciates his visits.
"My guest," she says out loud. She giggles, surprising herself, then blushes. As usual, she feels like a schoolgirl.
She glances at the clock over the stove. Ten minutes till noon. He always arrives at noon sharp. Time to see to the coffee.
Mary Ellen is, to put it mildly, a coffee snob. Automatic drip technology is banned from her home, as she is a partisan of percolation. The pot she uses is another heirloom, this one from her grandmother. It's an all-in-one set from the early 1900's, kept beautiful and shining, cleaned after every use. It is designed to be placed on direct heat, and she's always careful not to set the gas flame too high. Fire smudges on her pot would be ghastly.
She buys her beans from a little store downtown, pricey but worth it. Her favored brew is a blend of Arabica and Jamaican Blue Mountain: it's mellow but with a surprising strength and a deeply earthy bouquet.
She grinds a portion, fills and caps the inner chamber, and carefully pours in the proper amount of ice cold spring water. She lights the stove, adjusts the flame and sits the pot on the heat to work its magic.
She takes her place at the table and waits. In some ways, this is the best part of these visits: the lovely anticipation. The delicious knowledge of company coming, of considering pleasant topics of conversation, of waiting to hear the laughter and see the smile of her very welcome guest. And all the while the cheery rattling gurgle of coffee being brewed, filling the air with that wonderful aroma.
A blessed moment.
As the minutes sweep by she thinks of her husband Mike, who passed on a decade ago, taken too young from stress and bad genetics. Only fifty six when he died. She thinks he would have liked her young guest, that they would have gotten along famously. Mike had been such a curious man, and such a lover of conversation. He could talk about far way lands and times for hours and hours.
And her guest could tell such stories!
The second hand finishes its sweep and the noon hour arrives.
With it comes her guest, fading into reality from nothingness. It takes less than three seconds, to go from an empty chair to her friend and coffee date Eric.
Eric is a young man, and handsome. He is about twenty, with large dark eyes and short blonde hair. He is tall and thin, but muscular. His face is somewhat delicate, but not feminine. His smile is lovely.
He wears a strange outfit. It looks something like a jumpsuit uniform, though the material is like nothing she has ever seen.
He is from, he says, a little over a million years in her future.
He is, he says, the last man on earth.
And he is here to save the human race.
"Good afternoon!" she says, as she always says.
The first time Eric visited, it scared Mary Ellen half to death. She turned around and was faced with a strange young man in her kitchen.
She'd actually yelled. The poor boy was more frightened than her after that. It was a testament to his charm and persuasiveness that, in less than ten minutes, she'd been so relieved and calmed that she could do her duty as a host with an invited guest and offer him coffee.
Eric took to her brew like an addict born. He praised it. Such things were only myths and legends where he came from, she learned.
That first day was so surreal, and -- even now -- she was amused at how quickly she had accepted his story. Perhaps it was simple loneliness that caused her to be so accepting, but she was of the mind that it didn't matter.
As the last man on Earth, the last human being, Eric too lived a life of loneliness. He had only the massive and indescribably powerful computer network for conversation. It was this computer that cracked the secret of time travel, and was -- even now -- running the vast simulations that would pinpoint the exact moment in the past where intervention would save the species. Save them from the catastrophe known as 'The Big Crash'
"It's somewhere close to the here and now," he assured her, enjoying his third cup. "We've established that. That's why I never leave your house. Until we know the exact moment, and what exactly to do, there's no point in me endangering the mission and perhaps mucking up the timeline further." He helped himself to a warm-up. "That and your wonderful company and excellent coffee, of course," he assured her with a grin.
So they talked, became friends. He told her stories of the far future and she told him stories of the near past. But mostly they talked about themselves. She spoke of her daughter's workaholic ways. How she was married to her job and the idea of grandchildren seemed less likely every day. She shared with him the bittersweet memories of her husband. He opened up about what it felt like to be engineered for a purpose, and how he'd never understood loneliness until he met her.
Secretly, Mary Ellen dreaded the day when the computer finished its work and Eric's goal was in reach. If he managed to alter the past and re-arrange the future, if he was given an entire society to interact with, why would he waste his time with her?
But she pushed such thoughts aside. She had never been a person to allow the end of a thing to spoil her enjoyment of it while it was happening. That, she knew, was a recipe for misery.
So, like a good cup of fine coffee, she savored it while she could, sip by delicious sip.
As soon as he doesn't respond to her greeting, Mary Ellen knows that something is wrong. Something horrible.
A glance at his eyes seals the deal. He looks despondent. He has been weeping. She goes immediately into damage control mode.
"My dear, what on Earth is wrong?"
He stares at her for a moment, tears threatening. Finally he speaks, his voice wavering.
"It's over," he says. The words have a funereal sound. "It's all over."
For a moment her heart goes cold, and she thinks he means their visits. But that's obviously not it, since here he is. A deeper concern strikes her.
He nods, controlling himself with visible effort. "It finished the simulation this morning. There's nothing we can do. Nothing I can do."
"I don't understand," she says, mainly to keep him talking. She pours him a cup and adds his usual two lumps of sugar and dash of half-and-half.
"Neither do I, really," he admits. "The nature of time is still a mystery. But the computer is certain. There is no specific change that will alter my present in any way. The human species is dead, and will remain so." His voice comes close to breaking. "The Big Crash cannot be undone."
"Oh, my dear," she says, compassion flooding her. "How awful."
He takes a single sip of coffee, almost from habit. "The work of a lifetime. Made pointless in an instant."
"Not pointless," Mary Ellen says. "You had to try."
"Try and fail," he mutters. "What am I supposed to do now?" He stares at her with pleading eyes. "Why should I even bother any more?"
Mary Ellen realizes something, with the sudden flash that accompanied all her true insights: despite the eons between her and this young man he was exactly that, a young man. Why, he could be a grandson to her! What did technology or knowledge matter when faced with troubles that only experience could guide you through?
Half a million years of forward time meant less than forty three years of moment-by-moment experience. Despite his loneliness and drive, despite his vast intelligence and the information at his command, he had never experienced loss. He'd never felt it. He didn't know how to live through the pain.
Well, she did. She'd lost her parents and her only sister. She'd lost her husband. She'd lost friends and neighbors over the years. She wasn't used to it, of course -- you never became used to it. But she knew how to deal with it. How to keep on while the heart was hurting. How to let it ache without breaking.
And she could help him. She could help her friend.
"Eric, my dear," she begins, quietly. "You simply cannot let this haunt you."
He looks at her sharply. His expression wonders if she has gone mad.
"It will get you nowhere," she continues, pressing on. Her voice is steady and firm. "It will only lead to misery."
He is too taken aback for words at first. After a moment of struggle, he finds them. "Haunt me? Do you understand what I'm talking about? The last chance for the human race is gone. I have failed. Our species is extinct and shall remain extinct."
She nods. "Oh, I understand perfectly. I simply see no reason for you to beat yourself up over that fact. Nature is nature. What cannot be undone is done. Common sense." She smiles at him, a wise but cheerful smile.
His mouth is hanging open. He stutters, trying to argue.
Mary Ellen pushes ahead, unwilling to lose her momentum, her higher ground as she sees it.
"Everything dies, my dear. Everything. That's a fact of life and -- as you yourself and your wonderful computer have proven -- it cannot be changed."
Disbelief edges toward actual anger in his eyes. "A tragedy of this nature cannot be simply accepted as if..."
She cuts him off, knowing it's bad manners, knowing it may well increase his anger. She has to finish. "The only tragedy in death is if the life before the end was wasted. Was the human race cut short in its prime? Was the time it spend marvelling at the world and the universe in vain?"
Eric is stunned to silence. He slumps back in the chair.
"A million years from now you told me. A million years." She sips her coffee. "Seems like a nice long run."
"My purpose," he says, weakly.
She sniffs. "Your purpose is something only you can decide. It cannot be dictated or engineered into you." She sits her cup down, leans forward, and makes her final point.
"So. Will you waste your own life, wallowing in self pity and depression? You have so many years ahead of you. Will you cry them away? That would be a tragedy."
Eric closes his eyes, defeated. He sighs. Then he disappears, with a quiet sound and no fanfare. Without a farewell.
"Oh dear," Mary Ellen says. She didn't want that to happen. She decides not to worry on it. Her advice was solid, she should take it herself.
With nothing else to do, she clears the table and waits for tomorrow.
The next day dawns the same as any other, and Mary Ellen treats it as such. There is a bit of nervousness, an anxiety, as she goes through the routine of preparing coffee and setting the table, but she shoves such feelings deep into the back of her mind, remembering her own words from the day before. What is done is done.
The coffee is brewing, the kitchen filling with that blessed aroma, when Eric appears, right on time.
He smiles at her, not exactly cheerful, but without the heartbreak.
"Good afternoon, dear!" she says, as she always says.
His smile widens. He looks a little sheepish. "I thought about what you said," he tells her.
She nods, busy pouring. He thanks her and takes a long drink, as deep as the heat will allow. He makes a quiet sound of pleasure.
"You're right," he admits.
There will be no I-told-you-so. Mary Ellen simply smiles happily and nods again.
"And I made a decision," he continues, after another drink that nearly empties his cup. "A rather drastic one, in fact. I decided..."
He is interrupted by a sudden flash and a flat crack. Mary Ellen jumps a little, but manages to keep from spilling her coffee on the white linen.
On the table between them, two slim cases have appeared. Eric deftly unlocks and opens one. He spins it around to show her.
She goes wide eyed. Even to her amateur eye it's quite obviously a fortune in perfectly shaped gold bars.
"You've mentioned a spare room," he says, actually blushing. "Could you use a somewhat chatty tenant and some extra cash?"
There is nothing to say. She laughs, overjoyed. She holds out her hand and he grips it. They smile foolishly at each other.
A weight has lifted from her heart, a deep and abiding loneliness. And something else, something only now dawning in her mind: the idea of this handsome young man and her workaholic daughter, meeting. Eric could be so charming, so persuasive. Perhaps the dream of grandchildren was not so far fetched any longer?
She would see.
He is pondering too. An even deeper loneliness has left him, and something exciting has taken its place. No longer is he tied to a mandated course of action. No longer is fate a certainty to him. That's a terrifying prospect in many ways. But in others.....it speaks of nothing but adventure. Of hope.
One bright spark of civilization, of warmth and friendship is better than nothing in the face of eternal blackness. This he has decided. It will be a mere moment, an infinitesimal point in a cold eternity.
But could he really claim it is pointless? That it does not matter?
He smiles and straightens up. Mary Ellen is cheered to see it. She breathes a sigh of relief and goes for the pot again.
"Another cup, dear?"
The coffee smells so wonderful. He pushes his cup and saucer forward.
"Oh, yes. Please."
She pours. He thanks her. And in this simple ritual they refute nihilism. They refuse despair. He adds cream and blackness is lightened. Sugar melts in the heat and banishes bitterness.
He lifts the cup with calm hands and sips, tasting a model of the closed loop that was human history: finite, best enjoyed while fresh, and eventually finished.
It is delicious.