The end was near.
Fourteen could see it coming. floating on its own platform. It wasn’t visible until after midnight of the last day, a far-off speck in the flat gray void. As the day progressed, though, it came nearer and nearer, until Fourteen could see the plump-baby form, the sash, the top hat (Why do they still give us those?) and wearing the sartorial minimum. The baby first took notice of him in the late afternoon, but generally paid him no mind, the same thing Fourteen did upon his own arrival. But jeez, was he really ever that fat?
Finally, in the early evening, they were close enough to hear each other.
“Greetings, Fourteen,” the young one said.
“Fifteen, how are ya?” Fourteen leaned on his scythe. “Ready to take over?”
“I have a choice? Maybe if I run away, this whole boondoggle would come to an end.”
“Thirteen claimed he tried that, but just got shocked for his efforts. He was out for days.”
“Yeah, I heard about that. Something must’ve really scared the poor bugger.” He took off his hat, ran a hand over his bald head. He started to put it back on, then stopped, stared at Fourteen. “Where’s your hat?”
“It crumbled away before the end of the first quarter. Yours will, too.”
“Aw, man.” Fifteen turned the hat over, looked inside, then at the top. “I really like this. It gives me class.” He set it carefully on his head.
“‘Class’ is not something associated with our ilk.”
“I’ll say, given the look of those ratty old rags hanging on that skinny, wrinkled, ancient carcass of yours.”
“It’s a toga–”
The baby snorted. “A word stolen from some old Greek dudes who sat around scratching themselves in their ‘togas’ arguing about the nature of nature. And getting it all wrong, of course.”
“Pretty bold talk for someone still wearing diapers.”
The toddler’s whole body flushed red. “They made me wear this, I swear I’d never—” He pulled the waistband out, looked down. “Besides, I have nothing to put in them.”
“You don’t eat, you don’t need to–”
“Yeah, yeah, I got the lowdown from Administration. I tell you what, this form is pretty grody. I had hoped for the Translucent gig. Now there’s a beautiful and sublime form.”
“And their years are three months and six days shorter.”
“A short, bright life and then out in a blaze of glory. That’s the way to do it!”
Fourteen kept quiet, because he’d had the exact same wish a year ago.
“Been nice if you’d shaved occasionally.”
Fourteen shook his head so his long, white hair and long, white beard whipped around him. “Best beard you’ll ever see. Beats that scrawny fuzz on Thirteen’s chin. Don’t worry, ’round about March you’ll start to see some hair where there wasn’t any before.”
Fifteen made a show of taking his hat off, brushing non-existent dust off, putting it back on. “Shoulda used that blade t’do a little trimmin’ is what y’should’ve done, geezer.”
“You mean like this?” He swing the scythe backward. The platforms were close enough that it knocked the toddler’s top hat off. It rolled over and stopped right at the edge.
“Hey! Are you freakin’ crazy?” He waddled over, picked it up, again turned it slowly over as he inspected it for damage. “You’ve gotten senile-nuts in your old age.”
“Happens to all of us.”
“Yeah, well, time for some of us is gettin’ real short, and here comes someone who’ll make sure it happens.”
A black form was approaching, dark robes flapping and flowing around an emaciated central figure of bones, A skeletal foot touched down on Fourteen’s platform, but the rest of the figure halted. A skull leered out of the dark, winked. “Hello, boys,” it said in a raspy voice. “How’s it going?”
“Hello, Death,” Fifteen said. “You know, just hangin’ around, killin’ some time.”
“So, Death, how’s life treatin’ ya?” Fourteen said.
“Why’s everyone a comedian when I show up? Well, not everyone. Thirteen was a drudge, no sense of humor at all. Wasn’t too displeased to see him go.”
“Well, you can do the universe a favor by ridding it of him,” Fifteen said, pointing at Fourteen.
“All in good time, all in good time.”
“See, now who’s the comedian?” Fifteen said.
“Got to look at the bright side, don’t we, lest we become maudlin and depressed.”
“Yeah, nothing worse than a gloomy Death,” Fourteen said.
Death burst into loud and deep laughter as he glided away. “Like I haven’t heard that one before.”
Conversation died for a while as time passed and the platforms drew nearer. Fifteen looked askance at Fourteen, who waggled his beard at him. Fifteen hmpffed and fiddled with his sash, smoothing it out and adjusting it across his roly-poly chest.
“By March it’ll lose its brightness, by June the first rips will show and by September it’ll start hanging on you like it was torn from an old curtain.”
“That will not happen this year. I will see that it doesn’t.”
Fourteen let out a solid laugh, then their attention was caught by another figure moving toward them. This one was tall, thin and gaunt in face, though his bald head looked too large for the frame. A white robe covered him neck to boots. He walked steadily, almost plodding, toward them though nothing supporting him was visible. His beard, long and thin, hung to his knees and an hourglass hung from a handle he held in his right hand. The red sand in the top glass was almost gone. Fourteen knew the sand was his time, and he felt a little touch of cold fear inside. Was that Death laughing somewhere? Or was it Fifteen? Neither, he realized; it was his own heart.
Despite the hourglass, the figure pulled out an immense watch, popped a cover open. “Earth, Terra,” a voice rumbled deeply from the figure’s chest. “Another turn around its life-giving Sun.”
“Good day, Father Time,” Fourteen and Fifteen said together.
“Good day, gentlemen. Another turn, another year.” He set the hourglass down on Fourteen’s platform. “Not too much damage, more of the usual chronological processes. Not so much grand killing by the dominant species, not like in some years.” He shook his head. “Some years — wow.”
“Wow” from Father Time was equivalent to “Holy freakin’ apocalyptic hell!” from everyone else. Fourteen was glad one of those years wasn’t his.
“The place is getting warmer, and not so naturally,” Fourteen said.
Father Time shrugged. “The processes will happen as they will, and we will adjust as they do.”
“Another year of the same ol’, same ol’, then,” Fifteen said.
“Perhaps not, at least for us,” Father Time said. “The Administration has decided that, in light of shifting cultural values on the planet we serve, Sixteen’s skin could very well be a different shade. Or it’ll be female. Or both.”
“Bah,” Fifteen mumbled. “Change for the sake of change.”
“May I borrow that?”
Fourteen, surprised, handed him the scythe. Father Time stepped across the narrow gap, lifted Fifteen’s hat, rapped him hard on his head with the scythe handle. “Ow!” Fifteen shouted as Father Time replaced the hat, then stepped back across, handed the scythe back. “I am very old and very tired of this crap. What is it with Earth’s years, anyway? Only here do I get this constant guff. Maybe a female year is what we need. Damn it!”
Fifteen lifted his hat, rubbed the spot and gave Father Time an angry stare. Fourteen stayed silent. He had given Father Time guff, too, but at least he didn’t get rapped for it.
Father Time paid no heed, instead pulling out and looking at the watch again. “The last time zone is reaching zero. Fourteen, are you ready?”
“No. But what good does that do?”
“None at all, none at all.” He looked across the slim gap. “Fifteen! Ready!”
Fifteen stepped forward quickly. “Yessir!” He pulled up his diaper, adjusted his sash, adjusted his hat. “Ready.”
The platforms touched, the sand ran out. Fourteen lifted the scythe in both hands, then stretched his arms toward Fifteen, who stepped forward. Fourteen let go, but Fifteen stumbled, letting the scythe slip. In scrambling to hold on to it, he stepped back, tripped and fell, the scythe handle landing hard on his soft middle. He let out an “oof!” and a curse.
Father Time smirked. “Another successful handover.”
Fourteen laughed. The exact same thing happened a year ago.
“Sir?” He stopped trying to stand, looked up.
Father Time picked up the hourglass, turned it over. A stream of red sand slipped through the neck and began piling up on the now-bottom.
Fifteen swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
“Fourteen.” Father Time nodded, began his plodding steps that took him off in a different direction.
The platforms were separating rapidly now. Fourteen stood alone, watching as the other receded. Fifteen wasn’t looking in his direction. He was still trying to stand up with the scythe. He finally managed, leaning the scythe against one shoulder and planting his feet. He stood staring off into the void. At this distance, Fourteen couldn’t see Fifteen’s face, but he knew which expression was on it. It was the expression someone wore when asking, to borrow a phrase from the humans, WTF?
Yeah, exactly, Fifteen, Fourteen thought, WTF?