The snow falls outside the window, thick fat flakes that drift slowly past the glass, settling on the grass and concrete five stories down. It is the last snowfall that the world will ever see. Natsumi stands at the window and looks out. She thinks that she will go onto the roof before she finishes her work, to taste the snow on her tongue one final time, before the end of all things.
The clouds hang in grey waves over the city, and the comet is hidden from view. She has not forgotten that it is there, and neither has anyone else. In the distance, across the river, the fires still rage that rose up in the financial district three days ago. She doesn’t know how they started, if it was an accident or caused in the riots. There is no television in the lab, and she hasn’t left the room since she began her final project nearly a week ago. She has been sleeping under the desk where Silas used to work, lab coats for a pillow and blanket, and living off the remaining breakfast bars and potato chips that were kept in the filing cabinet for nights of long research.
She turns from the window and returns to her workstation. There is only one box remaining to scan. The finished boxes she has stacked in front of the lab’s only door, which she has kept closed and locked since hearing a single gunshot from somewhere in one of the other labs two days ago. She didn’t go out to discover if it had been a murder of one or the suicide of another. At this late date, one end is as good as another.
It is cold in the room, a necessity because of the dozens of computers spaced around the lab, humming loudly as they continue to process the data she has been feeding them. Natsumi hardly notices the temperature any longer. She has grown accustomed to the chill, letting it fill the hollow place inside her that was born on the day that Silas died.
She taps on the keyboard at her workstation, and the eye at the end of the scanning arm powers up with a blue light, casting a cool glow over the target area on the table below it. She waits until the machine emits its ready notification beep, and then she removes the lid from the last box and reaches in to remove the items it contains.
A black iron doorknob, scratched and well-used. A plastic doll’s head, its eyes rolling open and closed as she lifts it and sets it on the tabletop. A white button from a shirt, cracked but not broken. The Q key from a manual typewriter, with a nick in the tail of the letter. A Polaroid photograph of a fog-shrouded mountain, with a lonely highway rolling out beside it.
Pieces of a memory. The last notes of a song. The final words of a love story.
Natsumi places the doorknob under the scanner, then presses her computer’s execute key. The blue light brightens until she has to squint her eyes against it. The humming of the lab’s computers grows noticeably louder, and the doorknob begins to sparkle, like moonlight on ice. Beneath the hum, a second sound begins, a soft rattle like sand falling on the skin of a drum, and slowly the doorknob begins to fade from view, becoming transparent from the outside in, as though it is turning to crystal as she watches. Then, with a hollow pop, it vanishes completely, leaving the target area empty.
She checks the readout on her computer. Hundreds of lines of code scroll by, then thousands, then millions, moving too quickly for her to read: the curves and edges of the doorknob, the color of the metal, the weight of it under a hand, the feel of cold iron in the morning. Everything that is the physical essence of the doorknob, now being analyzed by the computers, translated into a code, buried inside the electronic brain of the machines. The hum around the room grows even louder as they perform the job for which they were programmed.
When she is satisfied that the computers are processing the doorknob correctly, Natsumi places the doll’s head under the scanner and repeats the process. In a few moments, the plastic toy vanishes as well, and is catalogued in the computers.
One by one, the remaining items in the box are scanned, broken down and catalogued, until only the photograph remains. Natsumi turns to the window and sees that the snow has stopped falling. The clouds have broken in places, and the comet is easily visible through the pockets of sky seen through the clouds. It looms heavy in the air, a hangman’s axe, poised to fall. She only has a few more hours to complete her task.
Natsumi looks away from the window. She removes the photo from the box, and regards it with a mixture of happiness and sorrow. She does not know the name of the mountain or the number of the highway, but she does remember the day that she and Silas stopped there, on the way to a conference, six months after they had become lovers. She remembers how he kissed her, there at the foot of the mountain, with the mist slipping its fingers around their necks and arms and waists. She can’t forget the old abandoned house there, set back in the trees, and how welcoming its empty walls were when they stepped inside and made love on the blanket Silas took from the trunk of his car. The doorknob to the front of the house was already loose when they entered, and Silas took it with them when they left as a reminder of the afternoon.
She scans the photo in, and it disappears as quickly as had the other objects. She puts the lid back on the empty box and places it with the others in front of the door. She has scanned hundreds of items, and the empty boxes form a pyramid that is as tall as she is. She is exhausted, but her project is almost complete, and then she can rest.
She is glad Silas didn’t live to see the coming of the comet. She hadn’t thought his death merciful at the time, as his lungs filled with fluid, as his heart beat weaker and weaker. He wouldn’t have wanted to be present at the end of the world though. He liked to imagine there was a brighter future just ahead for the human race, no matter what their problems or obstacles. He would not have accepted the total annihilation that was only hours away. He would have put his faith in hope, to the last.
Hope is Natsumi’s task, her last gift to him. Hope in the form of a collection. Boxes and boxes of hope. A treasured paperback. A scribbled note on the back of a restaurant receipt. A silver ring with an inscription on the inside of the band. A lock of hair in a small wooden box. A video of a woman on a beach at sunset.
An iron doorknob from an abandoned house.
Each item was a note in a song, a single word in a book of the love of two human beings. Every earring she scanned, every house key, every pair of old eyeglasses was a piece of the story they had written together, Natsumi and Silas. Their love was etched into every piece of glass or plastic or metal that was broken down, bit by bit, into the computers filling the space inside the lab. The designs of their passion were written in the digital souls of the machines surrounding her now, a tapestry of ones and zeros.
She sits at her computer again, and begins to initialize the final program she has tasked for the system to complete. Soon, the archives will be uploaded through the uplink between her lab and the six orbiting satellites which were raised into the heavens four months ago. Once the data transmission is complete the satellites will leave orbit, and they will travel out in six separate directions into the far reaches of the universe, traveling archives of the love of two human beings, an ark for the heart of humanity. This part of her project is automated, because there won’t be anyone left to initialize it when the final scan is completed.
She takes one last look around the lab, although she knows there is nothing left that she has forgotten. Everything is as it should be, and it is also as it has to be.
Natsumi crawls up onto the table, and lays on her back with her head beneath the scanning eye. The light is bright, but not as bright as it will become. She thinks back to when she placed Silas on this same table, how light he had been in her arms after months of sickness, hollowed out by the hand of death. He was as light as air, almost as weightless as the data he became as the machine traced its brilliant blue light over his body, breaking it down, taking its measure of his cells and his scars and the pathways of his mind, uploading the very essence of the man, his soul itself, and putting it safely away into the protective vault of a computer’s hard drive.
Above her, the blue light pulses, and she shuts her eyes against it. There is no fear in her, only a peace and a calmness that is intermixed with a love for the man who has gone before her, and she holds the feeling close in her mind, as the scanner begins to write her, cell by cell, word by word, into a fairytale of love, into a narrative of what was lost and then found again, and a story of a world that has passed into the dust and dreams of an infinite universe.