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June 24, 2024

The Traveler

By Sand Pilarski

On towards sundown, I decided to go outside. The idea of dying indoors was repugnant to me; I wanted to face Death in the open air, free, unashamed of my fear. I wanted to look this death right in the face, not receive the Unwelcome Guest secondhand from falling bricks or churning smoke.

We were all going to die; there was no escape. On a pretty summer hillside, with the oblivious birds swooping from tree to tree, chirping and calling, and pink-tinged cumulus clouds in the robin's egg sky, Death sat waiting for the appointed hour.

Six months before, the evening news had announced an astronomical event the likes of which the world had never seen. Better than a comet, better than an asteroid, a whole planet never before seen was passing through our solar system, and would be visible from Earth. Anyone with a pair of binoculars would be able to see it as it passed!

Instant speculation: will the gravitational effects cause greater sunspot activity? What part of the sky should be searched to see the passing stranger? Is it a planet with life? Will the stock market fall or rise?

A month passes, and not another word from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory or NASA. And another month. And then, through phone calls and e-mails, a different kind of news about the passing planetoid. It will be too close for comfort.

The government was besiged day and night by phone calls demanding an end to the silence. Where are pictures from the space station? From the Hubble telescope? Preachers lashed their congregations with demands for repentance to avert any calamity. And then the government spoke. "We know that the planetoid commonly called "The Traveller" will pass through our solar system. Studies indicate that it will pass relatively close by the Earth, but we are not certain how close, and we do not yet know what effect the passage of The Traveller will have, if any. We will keep you informed of any developments."

Yeah, right.

A defector from NASA went public. "This thing's going to either hit us or pass by us so close it won't make any difference. I'm sorry, this is the end." And then he went out under the stars that night and blew his brains out with an automatic weapon he had duct-taped between his teeth, not wishing to even chance survival.

A panic of buying as people stocked up on water, gas, firewood, rice, ammunition. Prices rose as people gouged from their brothers and sisters every penny they could get. Spices, gold jewelry, antibiotics, all in short supply. Four-wheel drive vehicles were selling like hotcakes; Cadillacs sat in the lots and gathered dust and rust.

By the time the great astronomical event was four weeks away, the world knew that it was doomed, at least those who had access to radio and television. Many still hoarded their hoards, but many more put down their swords, their plows, their pens and their calculators, and looked about them at all the people they had never bothered to know. It was important now to hear everyone's story, to touch them, to hold them, to receive their tears, to give tears back in return.

And this was the very day. Death was here, in my garden, in my kitchen. I put my dog Gabe on his leash, and we began to walk. We walked through the streets of the city, and the streets weren't empty; people were still going to each other's houses, and congregating in bars or churches, depending on the persons' viewpoint, and Death was smiling fondly at them all. Gabe and I paused in front of a bar called "Danny's", where music and shouting blared loudly past the red neon lights. I stood there, listening to the sound of People, for a short time, but tired of Death tapping his foot to the beat, and then my big black shepherd and I climbed the hill that overlooked the city, watching the northern sky lit with the westering sun's rays.

"My boy," I said to Gabe as I stroked his great dark head. "I loved you so. You've been a good, good boy." I took off his leash and collar, though I held on to his thick neck fur to greedily keep him close for as long as possible. I sat on the cool grass, and pulled him close, kissing the top of his head and treasuring the soft sweet ears.

In silence, a great shape began to move across the sky. I could see the sphere of The Traveller moving in, moving more quickly than I thought it would, a world colored by clouds of its own, swirling pastel colors, hazy as it began to push our atmosphere. The gravitational effects were beginning, and I felt lighter, as if I could leap into the air and sail fifty feet. Then, swirling bits of torn leaves and scattering the birds, the wind began to rise.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-11-25
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