The aliens came when Rita was nine. Came, passed by, kept going. Kept decelerating. That was a word she learned, around then. Slow or fast, deceleration was how all rides ended.
They weren't here for us.
Rita was twenty-three now, single, and wearing a spring sweater in a Jersey July. The sun was down to 95% output. Half a percent in less than a week.
Animal videos still existed at the end of the world, and she was watching one because Constanza had shoved it in her face.
“I need to clean the rabbit cages,” Rita said, trying to ignore it.
“You're a grump,” Constanza said, “and I already cleaned them for you.”
Somewhere in the halls of the animal shelter, the dogs were pitching their usual fit. On the screen, a grey parrot was dangling upside down from a lampshade, saying hello, hello to the camera. Then a toddler came in from stage right, screeching HELLO, sending the lamp crashing and the bird flying. Goodbye? it said, from somewhere off screen. End scene.
Autoplay: Home Aquaponics by DIY_Apocalypse was up in three, two—
Constanza hit cancel, and the video went back to that last screen of the toddler's manic grin. “Did you ever want kids?”
“Might have,” Rita answered.
Twenty-three and single meant she'd turned down three dates and one marriage proposal since the start of the year. She was desperate, but not the same way they were.
Constanza was twenty-eight, and staring down at her coffee cup. “How long do you think espresso will last after the lights go out?”
Rita knew a fourth invite when she heard it coming. She should have gone with a baggier sweater. Maybe one of grandpa's old formless sacks.
“You get off at five, I get off at five,” Constanza said, “and I guarantee we won't be making any kids.”
It was a stronger sales pitch than most.
“Let's start with coffee,” Rita said.
Dysons were hair dryers, vacuum cleaners. Dysons were swarms.
What are they made of? the host of the news show asked, long after scientists, politicians, and a growing number of concerned hobbyists and conspiracy theorists had done the same.
We don't know.
Rita dreamed of birds sometimes. A hundred million trillion passenger pigeons returned to their old range, blotting out the sun. Karmic ghosts or some metaphorical dream crap.
Dyson swarms were a lot harder to shoot down.
“No, really. Giant domes.” Constanza had a hand gesture for giant domes. This was a thing Rita was learning about her. “Power them with nuclear. Lots of grow lights. Artificial sun. Boom, problem solved.”
“How long would that take to build?”
Constanza had a hand gesture for killjoy, too. And a very specific look. “Pretend, for five minutes, that the world has its act together. No arguing, everyone's mobilized, all other politics have ceased to exist.”
They pretended for two and a half hours. Rita thought giant domes were inefficient, even in the land of make believe. She advocated for numerous non-giant-dome greenhouses with proper insulation, redundancy against disasters, and high-density subterranean living spaces.
“And tunnels,” Constanza added. “Secret tunnels.”
Rita allowed the addition.
They sat in the chain coffee shop, planning out humanity's future with gestures and napkin doodles. They ignored the half-heartedly cleaned graffiti on the table, the boarded-up window, the sirens close enough to show the city still cared about this neighborhood. They recycled their coffee-spotted masterplan on the way out, pretending with the force of childhood habit that separating their trash would save the world.
There were police lines set up a block over and lights spinning in the darkness.
“That's where I parked,” Constanza said.
“My apartment's three blocks from here,” Rita said. Which didn't come any closer to saving anyone, but it was a night for pretending.
Why are they here?
Energy collection. Probably.
Where did they come from?
Their star might be too dark to see.
We don't know.
Can't we ask them?
There was a hyacinth macaw on the front steps of the shelter, the largest species of flying parrot in the world. It was cobalt blue with yellow around its eyes and beak. Its tail stuck out of its undersized carrier. Rita unlocked the front door and set their new resident on the reception desk. She turned on the radio.
Constanza pushed open the door with an elbow and came in backwards with jelly donuts, coffee, and a smile. She was an hour late. No customers had appeared in the meantime. Adoptions came in waves, humanity collectively deciding not to be alone. In-between was the ebb of abandonment, people pretending there was a better life with someone else.
One of the volunteers had dropped by, already wearing his REPENT ALL SINS signboard. He liked to walk the dogs while he preached. He'd left just before Constanza showed up, an old cockapoo toddling by his side.
“Hello?” the macaw asked.
“Why hello there, pretty bird,” Constanza gushed.
“We don't have space for her here,” Rita said. She'd decided the bird was female. “No cages big enough—unless we clear out a dog kennel, but she'd probably pluck out her feathers from the noise...”
“Who's a sweetheart?”
“ ... No perches, no food ... ”
“Do you like jelly donuts, pretty girl?”
“No jelly donuts.”
“Cherry is a fruit. And what about that big ol' cage at your apartment?”
The cage was broken down at the back of her closet, draped under the trailing sleeves of her work shirts. Constanza was wearing one of Rita's work shirts. Rita pinched the bridge of her nose.
“If you didn't go home to change, how are you this late?”
Constanza handed over fresh coffee from the chain store up the street, the one where yesterday they'd doodled the world's salvation. Constanza handed over a jelly donut from the fancy five-star artisan joint halfway across the city, the one some celebrity chef had set up because, screw fine dining, she wanted to make donuts until the end. Constanza smiled.
“Macaws can live sixty years,” Rita grumped, through a mouthful of exceptionally good custard.
“Humans can live a hundred.”
Can. Could. Could have.
They took the macaw back to Rita's apartment. Rita christened her Athena. Constanza slipped her raisins and tried coaxing her into responding to Pollywanta. The bird twisted her head nearly upside-down and didn't answer to either.
“Hello?” the bird asked. “Love you?”
Humanity sent out radio waves and rockets, television signals and mathematical diagrams, digital files and engraved plaques. Someone beat the United States to sending a nuke. We'd been sending most of those before the aliens came, though.
Some private company sent a ship. Crowdfunded. It was stopped by a shimmer around Mercury's orbit; birds realizing glass existed.
Stopped was a euphemism. They stopped the nuke, too.
“If someone did make those domes of yours—” Rita said.
“With the secret tunnels. And I thought you said the domes were inefficient.”
“If they built them,” Rita said, with a magnanimous wave of her wine glass. “Do you think they'd let in two nonprofit workers from a no-kill shelter?”
Constanza tipped back her own glass, but found that someone had already emptied it.
“Do you think they'd let in anyone much at all? How many could they fit? What are they going to do with their pets?”
Constanza reached for the bottle, but someone had beaten her to that, as well.
“Do you think anyone's even building them? Would they tell us if they were?”
Constanza tipped Rita's glass, still in Rita's hand, into her own mouth. Then she guided Rita in setting it down on the table, next to the empty bottle. “We need more wine for this.”
Rita did not disagree.
The news said the sun was down to 92.5% output. A full percent in a day.
Exponential was the word. Exponential increase in productivity fueled by exponential growth in energy collection. Acceleration. The ships had come when she was nine, and the sun had been down to 99.98% by the time she graduated high school. A measly 0.02% in a decade. Plenty of time to deal with it. She'd applied to college, been accepted, didn't go. Unrelated to the sun, though it should have been.
In a few years it might be enough to counteract global warming, they'd said, when she was first scrubbing dog kennels. Like if you ignored two problems for long enough they'd just fight it out.
Scientific models predict rapid changes—some of the stations said. Scientists fearmongering for funding—said others. Rita had flipped past the squawking to find actual music.
How much light does Earth need? They hired people to come on their shows so they could ask questions like that.
Will they leave enough for us?
The last macaw she'd kept had been her grandfather's. He died in his sleep; old age. Her grandfather had died in a car crash. Sudden deceleration. Rita didn't worry about either fate.
Constanza had stayed the night without invitation, had borrowed her clothes without asking, and hadn't locked the apartment behind her in the morning even though she'd pocketed the spare key from its hook. Rita didn't worry about that, either.
The bird's name had been Zeus; her grandfather was her dedulya. Both bird and Ukrainian had been the same age when they'd died, years apart, but she'd only been with one of them when it happened.
They were between panics, the shelves restocked. The farms were still harvesting and the factories producing and the shipments shipping. Stockpiling supplies was a paced activity, part of the monthly budget. Rice, beans, canned goods, tampons. Light bulbs. Enough to last—for how long? Everything was in its final season: limited edition, enjoy it while you can.
These days, panic struck in giddy fits.
Constanza went into the liquor store and filled her cart with boxed wine. Rita went next door and cleared the grocery store's shelves of chocolate and sour gummy worms. They met in the parking lot, flush with victory and credit card debt.
She didn't know why credit cards still existed, or for how much longer they'd hold. Or money, for that matter. When the rush had been worse, she'd brought her babulya's jewelry to trade with and didn't know why gold and cut rocks had any meaning either.
Chocolate and sour gummy worms. Those would hold their value.
The first real panic had hit around spring. The graph inflected. The end was nigh; the scientists and the REPENT ALL SINS dog walkers shared the final satisfaction of being permanently, inexorably correct.
The long, slow slope of deniability was over. There weren't decades to deal with this, and it really didn't matter what talking points the politicians had. Hadn't mattered for years, as it turned out. The question of whether it was really happening was not to be decided by us.
Humanity wasn't good at thinking in exponentials. The graph crept and crept, and then someone hit the gas and your granddaughter was left alone with hospital bills and a parrot no college dorm could overlook.
What can we do? the newscasters asked. And the scientists, the politicians, the concerned hobbyists. They asked like there was a better answer than whatever you want.
Get drunk and giggle over chocolate smears. Good a plan as any.
“Seventy-two percent cocoa,” Constanza read.
Rita poked the packaging accusingly. It took her two tries to hit it. “Slacker. Even the sun's putting out more than you.”
Constanza tasted like chocolate; Rita tasted like boxed wine. Maybe it was the other way around. They made it off the couch but not quite to the bed. The carpet was scratchy. The macaw was a creeper.
“Love you?” the bird always made things a question.
Constanza trailed lazy circles around the scars on Rita's shoulder. Rita had an answer for her, but not to the question she asked.
“What is this? This thing we have?”
“Why does it have to be a thing.” Rita always made statements. “It's not for long.”
“Only forever.” Constanza curled up against Rita's side. “To the end of the world.” Her shoulders shook silently: she was laughing. Rita almost entirely believed she was laughing.
“'S what I said.”
Humanity listened to the noises they made. Voices or engine putterings or the clattering of a productive construction site. We recorded and sent them back.
The building paused briefly. They returned a similar sound. Theirs was richer, more nuanced.
Why hello there, pretty bird.
Then they went back to building. No one was faulting their work ethic.
Rita wondered why they were here. She wondered who they were, why they needed to do this, what drove them to continue even though there was other life out there. She wasn't wondering about the aliens. She wondered when she could stop pretending she was.
They were tucked into bed. Constanza was sleeping, her arm curled up by her forehead like a child, a stray lock of hair picturesquely out of place next to her thumb.
“Love you.” Rita tried the words out. A question, a statement.
Constanza's breath hitched. She didn't wake, or didn't let on that she had.
They'd moved fast; there was only one thing left to do. At least this crash wouldn't leave anyone behind.
Hello, goodbye, love you.