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They were walking into church, her tiny hand in his, when they turned to ash.

What made it worse, terrifying, was that they dissolved into dust slowly, from the feet up. Ed had to watch her eyes and hear the choking scream. There was no pain; only the extreme shock of it. Her hand in his, still, gripping so hard as they sank to the sidewalk. He pulled Lisa’s head to his chest to shield her from the chaos, and prayed. Closed his eyes, and willed it to end like a bad dream.

When he opened his eyes, they were standing on the sidewalk again, hand in hand. Lisa’s little hand shook. She was in shock, eyes squinched closed and sobbing, so he grabbed her up and hugged her close. “It’s okay now, baby. It’s okay.”

General surprise and confusion murmured all around them. He walked up to the entryway, bemused. Legs felt fine.

“Hey Ed! Pardon my French, but what in the dang hill was that?”

Ed just shook his head, eyes wide, patting Lisa gently and twisting her back and forth. She heard the voices and opened squeezed eyes, too scared to actually cry. She whispered in his ear. “Evyone fall down?”

Disbelief and shock danced broadly across faces. “I don’t understand.” Shake of the head. “What… why…” A man asked his wife to pinch him and yelped loudly, embarrassed. “We’re awake, alright.”

Ed pulled the pastor inside. Leaning away from Lisa, he kept his voice low. “Listen, Jack. Is this… the start of the tribulation? Something out from Revelations?” Chuckling nervously, Jack cleared his throat. “Uhh, you know, yeah… it was odd. But I don’t think it’s the end of the world. We’re all still here. I’m going to go up and we’ll talk about it. But I think we should just have the service like usual.”

The pastor shrugged at his suit coat. Ed bounced Lisa on his chest and went to find a pew. People were bemused, but the continuing normalcy made the ash-eating seem far away. “Praise be that we’re all here and okay today,” Jack called out from the pulpit. The amen resonated.

After, they all walked outside to their cars. That’s when the meteors flamed through. Searing overhead. Everyone was too shocked to run for cover. The streaks of fire formed some kind of lattice. Everyone stood in the parking lot and stared. Ordered lines, following each other in geodesic swipes of thunder orange at different elevations. Pulses that looked planned.

Then, following afterward, a strange sizzling symphony reached them, a thunderous series of booms that almost sounded like a voice. But no one could understand it.

The news that night was confused and contradictory. A shaky anchor reported that none of the meteors had impacted and that the shock of the “melting,” as it was being dubbed, had caused a slight increase in accidents and only a few deaths. Fortunately, since people all seemed to experience it from the feet up, they couldn’t panic and step on the gas. There was an astronomer from Texas being interviewed. She claimed that none of the meteors showed up on any instruments until after that fateful moment.

Ed sat on the floor with Lisa as she asked all his questions. He sighed. “This must all be part of God’s plan, sweetie.” The default response. He had no answers.

The weirdest part was the surveillance videos. A look of puzzlement on faces, a slight pause, and then, with a blink, everyone was freaking out, shaking themselves, in shock, confused. Patting their bodies, doing strange little dances, shaking themselves in horror. It was awful to watch, each one a tiny stab of reminding that made his guts drop into the floor, but he couldn’t look away. Ed covered Lisa’s eyes every time one came on, and kind of wished someone would cover his.


They were walking in to church, her tiny hand in his, when they turned to ash.

What made it worst was that it took them slowly enough that he could watch it happen. Ed had just enough peripheral vision through the panic to see it dissolving everyone around. There was time for him to cradle her screaming form to his chest. He closed his eyes and prayed, as his torso turned to ash. Painlessly.

Then, a shift from where his stomach should be, and he could feel her hand in his again and the weight of his feet on the sidewalk. He blinked his eyes open, and everything seemed to be back to normal.

He swung Lisa up to his shoulder as she shook and sobbed. They all went into church and stared, trying to support each other and understand. At the end of the service, the “amen” rang out. They walked to their cars.

Later, they sat at home watching the evening news. Ed sat on the recliner, leaning forward, head in hands, soaking in uncertainty. Lisa played with blocks, for a moment not thinking about the Melting that the talking heads were so obsessed about.

Experts argued; anchors waffled. Thing was, no recording devices showed the ashes; they just showed people suddenly stopping, staring at themselves, stumbling. There were more highway accidents, but no evidence of ash, even though everyone remembered it with an awful clarity. No planes crashed, no trumpets from the sky. Just people reporting different hallucinations.

Various cranks were thrown in front of a camera, wide-eyed, with a supposed proof of the end times. Lots of fancy serious computer imagery of the Melting was played. Clergy were called on to explain; various possible causes were trotted out. Ed bought none of it. Didn’t know what to think. Beginning of the end, or the start of a new discovery? A waking dream, but everyone shared it.

Lisa piped up. “Daddy, why’d the man on TV say it din’t really happen? I amember it jus’ fine!”

Ed nodded and patted her arm. “Yeah, honey. It happened for sure, but they’re all arguing over what it means.”

Then, between blinks, a strange cartoon dog replaced the news anchor, and the audio went off-angle. It sounded like the TV was inside out and the other side of it was far, far away. The dog started barking, but then some of it sounded like words. Ed tilted his head and leaned in. Then the dog began to speak. In English. Its eyes were not blank black. There was a shine in them. It felt like the thing was in the room.

“First things first. This is not your god, as your ontology has it, but we want to help you. Or at least, to understand you. Your planet has been backed up.”

Ed stared. The dog’s face changed, becoming something more than a flat image. Lisa moaned and ran out of the room. He could not look away.

“Please, do not panic. We are sorry for scaring your unitary youth.” It looked directly into his eyes with a very serious look on its face. About as serious as a purple cartoon dog can get. “Ed Simmons. If you want to understand, please help us to understand your species. You are one of our chosen people for the random sample.”

Ed sat, shaking, starting to sweat from under his arms. He couldn’t speak. What could he say? An “Oh Lord” escaped his lips.

“You are repeated to, Ed. This is not your god. But do not mistake the importance of being chosen. Please get some rest and prepare yourself. Tomorrow we will begin learning in earnest.”


They were walking in to church, her tiny hand in his, when they turned to ash.

It was just as awful to watch it happen from outside. Ed felt like a ghost, hovering over the scene. He wanted to say something calming to his prior self. Seeing it directly was more vivid than his memories and more detailed than his dreams. The ashes crept up her legs so slowly that time seemed to freeze its fingernails on the chalkboard of suffering.

As the melting finished glacially devouring them, a voice calmly said, “Stop.” And everything did. The wind stopped whistling. Squirrels stopped their confused bickering in the nearby trees and waited patiently for the next words. But Ed could still survey the paused reality.

He shuddered, staring up at the cold-seeming sun, and thought it strange he couldn’t feel anything on his skin. Then he realized with a shock that he couldn’t see his body. He tried to speak: “Uhhh… what… hey, mister doglike thing…”

A voice echoed where his skull might have been. “My apologies. I realize you are used to being fully corporeal, but it is simpler to show a non-overlapping sim.” Ed suddenly found himself standing on the freshly-mown church lawn.

Then the dog blinked into being next to him. “Doglike is a fine name for us.” It bowed and gestured at the sun. “Now you can feel your star again, and perhaps more connected.” Then it made a bizarre movement, like climbing an invisible ladder, and suddenly it was wearing an absurd little tuxedo. Tucked in the jacket pocket was a tiny glistening crystalline structure, all blues and purples. On the other lapel sat a comically large name tag reading “HELLO my name is DOGLIKE.”

Ed shook his head. “Why are you showing me this? Clearly you had to’ve caused the melting, but why put me through all this? Is this some sort of purgatory? Some sort of test, you said… are you an angel or a demon? An alien?”

“Causation is unclear, but we were following the protocols. You have misunderstood. As stated before, we are neither gods nor devils. We are simply older than you. The closest thing you have in your language is an oncologist, perhaps. Or simply a scientist.” Doglike motioned to the trees, blowing quietly in the breeze. “This is how we left your planet. Purgatory, in your idioms, is a close match.”

“Left? What have you even done with us?” Ed was rocking back and forth, and he fell to his hands and knees and began pulling at clumps of the damp grass. “Where are we, even? This can’t be real, but it feels so…”

“Real is a gradient you have not understood yet, Ed. It will take time.” Doglike shrugged. “Fortunately, in the musical phrase of your people, time is on our side. We have many Earth years until full connect. Until then, you must try to adjust.”

“And if I don’t? If I can’t?”

“Then your reality ends here. Your story will stop at a pile of ash.” Doglike turned to him and raised his cartoon eyebrows. “On that topic, we have a question for you. Why do some humans pray for an apocalypse?”

Ed shook his head and said nothing.

Doglike sat down in the grass. “After that, what does one think when the request for an ending is granted, but the end is not the resolution longed for?”

The purple form sat there for a long time. Ed knelt in the grass, silent. Then the dog raised a spindly arm, and time jumped backwards, and the melting started over.

“Ahhhh! Why are you showing me this again?”

“You need to know that this happened. This was not a miracle or a curse. You need to know why this happened. Let us continue to ask questions.”


They were walking in to church, her tiny hand in his, when they turned to ash.

She was screaming in fear in his arms, and the sky suddenly turned to night. The stars were too intense to look at, tiny daggers of pure light. They seemed to be spinning drills, burning holes in his skin. The moon was pulling his skin off to let the light into his bones. That light…

And then Ed woke, tangled from thrashing in the sheets, covered in uneasy sweat. He lay there, exhausted and on the edge of tears, and then realized that Lisa really was screaming. He leaped from the bed, angrily waving the sheets away as they tried to follow him into the hall. He stumbled to her room, shivering from something that wasn’t the chill of the night. She was tossing and turning in a nightmare, too, and he took her up in his arms, saying the soothing words that were not words and running fingertips through her hair.

“Ed. You are awake.” The unnatural voice…

He let out a quiet, clenched roar under his breath. “Doglike, answer me this: why do I still dream? Why do I dream in a dream?” Ed banged a fist into the side of the doorway. Looking down at Lisa, he shook his head, and whispered, “Why does this have to be half normal and half nightmare?”

“We have learned that sometimes these conversations work better at night. When you can see. Please come outside.”

Ed sighed. He brought Lisa a glass of water, smoothed the blankets, and pecked her on the cheek. He walked out onto the porch, in the silent gloaming. Doglike perched on the railing, spinning a stalk of some sort in his hand. Nights seemed quieter after the melting. It took long silence for people to come to terms with this new dark, Ed thought.

He leaned against the railing for a while and listened to the distant traffic. “So, uhh… I think I’m starting to understand. You think we’re a cancer, a danger.”

The shadowed short form nodded. “Yes, Ed. We think you are dangerous to yourselves, and eventually to us.”

Ed nodded back. “Yeah, I could see that. Atomic bombs and population explosions…”

“Indeed. One uncontrolled nuclear explosion is curiosity. More is insanity. We were also quite interested that a carbon form would create silicate sub-forms. It is quite rare.”

Ed shook his head. “You lost me there, pal.”

“Carbon forms usually design carbon-based sub-forms. Silicon forms usually beget silicon-based sub-forms. For example, I am a silicate substrate sub-form spun off from a distant silicon parent lineage. Millions of your years ago.”

Ed’s eyes glazed over through most of that, but caught the end. “You’re millions… you… are… millions of years old?”

“Yes, but this instance was… asleep for much of that, waiting for alarms.”

Ed frowned. “So if we’re the danger, what are you doing with us?”

Doglike waved a tiny paw, and the blackness around Earth made a sickening twist and jump. The moon winked out, the stars danced for a moment, and then they realigned in new shapes. Towards the west, they looked red and dimmer. And toward the east, like a rising field of holes poked in the sky, they were brighter and glimmering.

“This is a view of our current position.” He made a gesture toward the sky that was hard to interpret in the starlight.

“So you’re… taking us somewhere else? Why?” Ed twitched as if he was considering grabbing the dog and shaking it. But he could tell this was just a manifestation of this… thing.

Doglike did not seem to notice, and breathed in. He turned towards Ed and the reflecting starlight made his eyes pale miniatures of the night sky. “What do you predict your civilization would be like without belief in God?”

Ed bit his lip and thought a while. “Sadder.” He paused. “Maybe there’d be less wars.” He sat down on the edge of the porch, shook his head, and buried it in his hands. “I don’t know.”

“And what do you predict your civilization would be like without belief in free will?”

Ed stared at Doglike. He looked about ready to cry, and then suddenly he burst out laughing. “What?”


They were walking in to church, her tiny hand in his, when they turned to ash.

Ed watched from above.

They blinked back into existence on the sidewalk moments later, and he couldn’t take his eyes off her as she shook, and the old version of him swung her up to a shoulder. Was this twenty times? Fifty? He couldn’t remember how many times he had watched this happen. Again, Doglike made a school bus fall out of the sky immediately next to them. And yet again, the copy of him below dropped Lisa in his shock and fell backwards yelling an obscenity. It was a little less embarrassing every time, but he still felt some shame bubble up when he saw the look on her face.


Ed was still arguing. “But different things happened each time, when you showed me your tests!”

“We subtly altered the data for each run, while learning your minds.”

Ed shook his head, standing on the school bus, looking down. “This doesn’t prove anything, anyway. That’s not me.”

“Definitions of self are difficult. That is an exact copy of you, just as we scanned that day.” Doglike paused. “If you are unsure, we have prepared a direct example. Be warned. It is often disconcerting to beings like you. To invent a phrase: it is existentially painful.”

“I have to.” Ed shook his head. “I have to try.”

Doglike made a weird swimming motion in the air, and they stood in a flat gray room. The only furniture was a table. On the table was a blank monitor and three cups.

“You must guess which cup hides a golden seed.” Doglike gestured.

Ed picked up the cups. First one: nothing. Second one: nothing. The third one he lifted hid a small, shining coin. He turned to Doglike. “I don’t get it.”

“Now we turn on the predictor.”

“Uhh, okay…” The screen flickered to life in front of Ed. It was a flickering video image of them, like a mirror. He saw his confusion echoed back. Except, then, unexpectedly, the other version of him waved. He waved back, bemused. The other version of him mouthed something, but there was no sound. “What is this? I still don’t get it.” He walked behind it and prodded at the edges of the screen.

“Take your time.” Doglike had a painful smile on his face. “That screen predicts the near future with total accuracy. Watch it and choose a cup.”

Ed walked to face his copy, and looked at the cups. Before he could reach for the one on the right, his copy did so in the monitor. Then he found his own arm reaching for it. He tried to stop, and did, but realized that his copy had already paused as well. Then the other Ed quickly grabbed the middle cup and threw it on the ground. Ed’s arm started to move and he felt a growing terror as he tossed the middle cup to the floor. He stared in at the copy on the screen, and it stared back at him with horror.

The copy began to sway from side to side, and Ed started to feel physically ill. He swung vaguely in a wind that wasn’t there. Then the image of him grabbed the cup with the coin under it, and slowly picked up the coin in the other hand. He tried to just stand there, but the feeling was too strong. That’s when he understood. He reached under the cup and picked up the coin. It was blank on both sides, just a shimmering disk.

Ed trembled and squeezed his fist around the coin. He closed his eyes and felt a shiver go over his skin. Then a light entered his eyes. “Wait… this is a simulation. This isn’t the real world. You can’t prove this without the real world.”

“That is true.” Doglike nodded. “However, no one can prove free action there either. You are this, now. Just know that the math carries over.”

“Doesn’t this bother you? How can you live?” Ed’s anger and disgust turned his furrowed face red.

“We live like we always have. Just as you shall.”

Ed cried. He railed at the walls. He screeched at Doglike, imploring him to just put things back the way they were. In the end, he lay sobbing on the implacable gray floor.

Doglike came over and placed a paw on his arm. “Sorry, Ed. You all need to see, or you will not change.”

“What will you do if we can’t change?” Ed clenched his jaw. “According to you, we can’t change of our own free will!”

Doglike shook his head. “You are misunderstanding. That was an attempt to show that your concept of ‘free will’ is fundamentally broken.” He lifted his cartoonish tiny paws to make air quotes. “If you cannot change, then the quarantine continues. But trust us. We are old, and we know that all things change.”

Ed sat in silence.

The purple dog picked a blossom of clover from nowhere and spun it. A miniature magic trick. “We have all the time in the world. To use one of your sayings.”


They were walking in to church, her tiny hand in his, when they turned to ash.

It was terrifying at first, but then it was over. The ashes lifted up and blew in the wind, and the Sunday afternoon was more peaceful without all of them. Lonelier, perhaps; but a quiet settled down that soon seemed like the way things had always been. The squirrels on the empty green lawns bickered, uncaring and not missing the absent humans. A few planes, empty except for some ashes, crashed into the earth, as birds flew up, cackling. In the sky, unseen, a net of satellites went back into hibernation. Earth hung in its orbit, peaceful, under watch, waiting for the scars of its cities to crumble under green growth.

Further away, speeding through the vacuum of blackness, a tiny capsule that carried all of humanity’s accumulated knowledge and all of their tangled minds sped onwards. Quiet, as their fate was examined. The watchers ran simulations and talked to their samples.

Ed looked up from his book. Lisa yelled, “Daddy, I figured out how the maglet works!” A large plastic structure hung in the air in the living room, emitting an eerie synthetic noise whenever parts of it touched. “Doglike will be so happy!”

“That’s beautiful, honey.” A pang ran through where his heart should have been. He patted at his chest carefully. It was all still there, inside. But was it his heart now? He tried to refocus on the page in front of him, but his eyes blurred and something welled up inside him. Pride, perhaps. Or a new thing that felt like pride, but was not.

“Daddy, you’re not looking!”

categories: writing fiction