Behold the rose, glowing scarlet in the daylight of a shattered sky. It sits, perched delicately on the edge of a crumbled pit, in defiance of weather and acrid air. Nothing moves the rose but wind, nearly all other life here long since ground to dust. No companion besides entropy to follow it into darkness, it stands alone, a testament to the simplicity of annihilation.
Except for the dome.
It also rises from the wastes, slick silicates and metal ribbons forming a hemispherical symmetry. Pearl in the eye of the oyster, the dome stands aloof in the land where all winds come to die. If the stories of the world before the dominion of dome and rose are known, only the ruins can say. Like those who made them, however, they are silently becoming dust.
Inside the dome, an obelisk awakes. Programming falls into place, energies oscillate and align, worlds rearrange as exabytes of information come into play. The obelisk obeys. Quantum probabilities are calculated and set into asynchronous motion. Something cloaked in tangible melancholy disappears from future’s end.
Sub rosa, of course.
In a lonely bar on an empty block, a stranger with chameleonic eyes sat down on a barstool. There was no one to the man’s right to talk to or see his eyes, a brilliant shade of gold-flecked green that would have been noticed in any kind of light. That lack of notice suited the stranger fine. It wasn’t why he came.
To the stranger’s left, another man sat, two stools down. This man fit into the bar’s décor; he slumped forward, nursing a drink, radiating defeat like sunlight. The stranger knew this man’s name, knew what was said on the letter the defeated man folded and refolded again and again. The stranger’s records were astonishingly complete.
The defeated man, whose name was Allan, drank another swallow from his glass. Amber light disappeared down his throat; the stranger could smell the bourbon easily from where he sat. The stranger knew about bourbon from his records. He wondered how it tasted, how it felt curling into the gut. Ironically, he couldn’t spare the time to find out.
The stranger got up from the barstool, walking easily toward the door. He hadn’t been seated long enough for the bartender to notice him, but that was all right. The stranger took a folded piece of newspaper from his pocket and placed it on the bar next to the severance letter Allan received that afternoon. He tapped it once, taking care to meet Allan’s eyes as he paused in his departure.
“Something for you,” the stranger said. He nodded once, and walked away.
He was almost out the door when Allan opened the paper. The first inhalation of surprise came after the door shut completely, and by the time Allan thought to chase the stranger down, his obituary from three years in the future in his hand, there was no sign of the man with the chameleonic eyes.
Outside the flow of worlds, the obelisk watches time, endlessly scanning. It surfs the curling edge of existence, searching for currents, rapids, the occasional riptide. Deep in its central functions, where the stranger half-believes a spiritus ex machina dwells, the obelisk understands this task is of limited use. What it does not understand is despair, so it continues, long after the stranger alone would have withered into silence.
Besides, what else is there?
And then, on a day with only the toothy wind outside for company, the obelisk detects an eddy in the flow. As ordered, it pinpoints the ten-dimensional point where the eddy originated, and uploads the data to the stranger’s net, centuries away. The obelisk continues to monitor duration’s flow; something is happening.
Elsewhen, the stranger patiently tends his tasks like a Buddhist monk raking a sand garden, and notes faint waves on the sands of history. Outside the dome, the rose waits for the dawn.
“Why?” Allan said aloud as he walked the blocks back to his third-floor apartment. His wife waited there, and a child on the way. He looked at the severance notice he’d received, his reward for years of long nights and white-hot effort. In his other hand, the obituary with his name. It couldn’t be real, but it was: there was too much right, too many things that couldn’t be known. Too many names of people unborn.
“Why did he give me this?” Allan asked the night again.
“Do you think it’s a lie?” the stranger asked from the shadows of an empty alley.
Allan turned, seeing the shadow in the alleyway but unwilling to look further. He hadn’t really noticed the man in the bar, but now, he was afraid to look. He had no idea what he might see.
“No. What I want to know is why you bothered. Am I supposed to do something?”
Allan thought the stranger shrugged. “Time has inertia, as everything does. History is a river; throw a pebble, make a ripple, but the river doesn’t change course. Whatever we do is swallowed into the whole.”
“Then why are you here?” Allan asked.
“At least we can throw rocks. If enough are thrown at the right time, the right place, perhaps a difference can be made.” The stranger laughed once, a strangled sound that sounded far older than it should. “I have nothing left but to try.”
Something moved in the shadows, and with a sigh, the stranger was gone. Allan stood at the alleyway mouth, looking into shadows and pondering the stranger’s words. He stared at the papers in his hand, thinking about what they meant. The wind fluttered, and Allan turned away from shadows, toward home. Along the way, he passed a trash basket.
Upstream, a new ripple appeared that only the obelisk could see.
Somewhere, somewhen, there stands a dome. Alone in its vigil, it remains the only survivor of a world.
Except for the roses.
Brandon Nolta lives in north Idaho with his wife and two children. He works as a freelance writer and editor from home, when his kids let him. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Strong Verse, Digital Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction and a handful of other publications.