After a lengthy absence, I got back into the SFF World Flash Fiction contest last month. The topic was pretty open: you just had to include something about a book. Which should be an easy thing for a bunch of writers. But I’d had no inspiration (or motivation) for anything longer than the 100-word micro-fiction pieces for a really long time. Until the inspiration for this one hit. I’m channeling more than a little Douglas Adams here, but I must have done something right, because I was lucky enough to win the contest for the month. Let’s hear it for inspiration.
“How was this allowed to happen?” Pontifect Mendacanus IV said irritably from the High Seat.
“The Holy Tomes are quite voluminous, Your Prominence,” Scriben Donson replied nervously. “One thousand seven hundred and forty-two books, with thousands of pages each. Our scholars have been diligently reading them in shifts for hundreds of years, ever since they were discovered.”
“And no one thought to skip to the end?” the Pontifect groused.
“It didn’t seem proper, Your Prominence. These are the divine words of the Ascendant. Surely they were meant to be read in the order He intended?”
The Pontifect waved a hand. “You’ve no need to remind me of the sanctity of the Tomes. It just would have been convenient to know about this before our predecessors based the most widely worshiped religion in all of Themnos on it.”
“I can only agree, Your Prominence.”
The Pontifect heaved a sigh. “Why couldn’t this have happened during Contifexus’ reign? If anyone deserved this kind of headache, it was that old bag of snakes.” He rubbed his eyes. “All right then. Where exactly does it leave off?”
Donson unrolled a scroll and read aloud. “‘Know then that this shall be the Way of Ending, the manner in which I shall call all of Themnos back to Mine side. It shall begin thusly.’” He trailed off. “There are no more pages after that.”
“One thousand seven hundred and forty-two books telling us how to serve Him so that we may join Him, and we don’t know exactly when or how it’s supposed to happen.” The Pontifect stared at a beam of sunlight coming through the one of the stained glass windows lining the High Presence. This particular window showed the Ascendant in one of His favorite forms, a burning cloud that still somehow produced rain, with His followers below both joyful for the rainfall and despairing as it seared everything it touched. The Ascendant could be a bit of an Ass sometimes. “I almost think He did this on purpose.” He turned his attention back to Donson. “All right, how do we finish it?”
“Your … Your Prominence?”
“We can’t just let the Tomes leave off with, ‘To Be Continued.’ We’ve got to come up with how the world ends.”
Donson could barely contain his look of horror. “Are you suggesting we presume to add our meager words to His?”
“Are you suggesting we tell all our followers that we’ve been preaching to them from an incomplete book all these centuries?” He arched an eyebrow. “I’m sure the tithers from the First Houses will be overjoyed to learn where their money has been going.”
“I take your meaning, Your Prominence.”
The Pontifect nodded. “Excellent.” He gestured toward the small desk next to the High Seat, where, had this been an open session, a scriben would have been taking down every word. “Let’s get to work.”
“Now?” Donson said.
“The world’s not getting any younger.”
Some eight hours later, Donson arched his back and furiously shook his writing hand in order to restore some semblance of feeling to it. He’d not only had to take down everything he and the Pontifect had come up with, he’d had to match his handwriting to that of the Holy Tomes. A small place inside him balked at the blasphemy of it, but he feared the Pontifect’s glare more than the Fires of Judgment at the moment. “‘And so shall endeth the Seventeenth Day of Tribulation, the Suffering of the Audibly Flatulent,’” he read. “I beg your pardon, Your Prominence, but this seems terribly specific.”
“So do the two thousand volumes we have already.” The Pontifect rubbed his eyes, fighting the sleep that crept into them. The Ascendant certainly loved the sound of His own Voice. “We can’t just throw in one or two extra pages and call it an apocalypse.”
“But it’s just all so depressing.”
“Of course it is! We have to make this world so bleak and unappealing that standing about forever singing songs in the Ascendant’s chorale looks good by comparison.”
Donson’s jaw dropped. “Now you mock our heavenly reward?”
“I’ve heard all of you sing,” the Pontifect said. “I’d hardly call an eternity of it a reward.”
Donson hunched his shoulders. “Very well, Your Prominence. But how much longer?”
“Do you mean how much longer before we end the world or how much longer we keep working?” the Pontifect said, and there was that fearsome glare.
“Whichever is shorter,” Donson said quietly as he set quill to paper once again.
One hundred and seventy-five years later, Pontifect Bocanthus IX listened as Scriben Temmerick stood before the High Seat and read aloud from the latest scrolls. “And that’s all for now, Your Prominence.”
The Pontifect nodded. “So how many days is that now?”
Temmerick quickly consulted his notes. “That was the Nine hundred and Thirty-Seventh Day of Tribulation, the Inconvenience of the Annoying Hair in the Mouth that You Can’t Quite Find.”
“Excellent. Have those pages aged and buried in the usual manner.”
“Of course, Your Prominence. Anywhere in particular?”
“Oh, let’s do Pallathan this time,” the Pontifect said. “They haven’t dug up anything there in at least a decade. They deserve a little pick me up.”
“Very good, Your Prominence,” Temmerick said with a bow, then turned and exited.
The Pontifect rose and walked to his private study behind the High Seat. He pulled a small chest from a hidden panel in the wall. His aging hand shook slightly as he fitted a key and opened it. He gently picked up the pages within, leafing to the last one. There, above the Pontifect’s seal and an ornate letter “M,” he read the final words:
“Most importantly, it must never be finished, for when they have all the answers, they will stop asking questions, and then what need of us?”
He returned the pages and secured the chest in its hiding place lest prying eyes find it. That would truly be the end of the world.