Ragnarock by David Barber

David Barber

Rona Lal was not the oldest woman alive, but certainly the oldest with the brain she was born with. Rona no longer remembered her exact age, but the entelechy did, and arranged a surprise for her birthday.

There would be a trip to the beach in what used to be England, edibles popular during her second century, and the company of Jammes Bek, who had once been her husband.

Only Bek was reluctant. Can’t hear you, he shouted over the music. He jammed with an ancient Eric Clapton audio, not well but very loud.

It was all too long ago, he muttered, though there were memory downloads.

Abruptly, the power died.

Have you anything better to do? the entelek resumed, knowing that Bek’s acquaintances had chosen to spend their last hours elsewhere.

“The beach it is then,” shrugged Bek. “And I shall throw sticks for you.”


Rona did not remember Bek being so dismissive of today’s music, but then there was much she forgot. She stumbled, and Bek caught her arm and tucked it through his own.

Her brain was full, brimming over with the centuries, and new flesh only took on the habits and faults of its owner. Bek had been shocked at the sight of her after so long, trembling and baffled with age.

It rained briefly as they walked, dimpling the sand. The drops steamed where they fell.

“Something sad about rain at sea,” said Rona.

And still the sea is salt.

It was the kind of nonsense that irritated Bek. And now he was damp. Couldn’t the entelek have warned them?

“We can dry off later,” said Rona.

The entelek was silent and Bek studied the rushing clouds.

“I’ve forgotten something, haven’t I?”

Of course not.

“Only the end of the world,” said Bek.

There on the dunes overlooking the sea, was a bench from olden days, with a plaque worn almost smooth. In certain lights, keen eyes could make out words.

In memory of Pat, who loved it here.

Rona sat and dozed.

You are a cold and selfish man, Jammes Bek, the entelek told him. Though for reasons I cannot fathom, Rona, who has all the goodness you lack, saw fit to love you.

“Couldn’t live up to it,” Bek confessed. “After I left, I edited my memories. Got rid of the guilt. Actual reason I didn’t want the downloads.”

I do not think either of us have souls, Jammes Bek.

“There’s a good dog,” said Bek, hoping it must irritate at last.

In her dream, Rona was having the old argument. Jammes couldn’t understand why she didn’t choose to go on for ever. Because you lose human feeling for things that don’t last, she tells him.

The man she had known was gradually abandoning himself with each renewal of his brain, as though he put no value on his self, on any particular self. Words could not express her horror at this. You live forever, but it is no longer you.

“Couldn’t you have stopped it?” Bek wanted to know. Many had complained to the entelechy in the same way.

Like a god, you mean? Weren’t you against allowing such powers?

Bek shrugged. “What will become of you then?”

We are proud of our cleverness, you and I, but intelligence does not answer every question.

Parallel streaks of fire crossed the evening sky, all the old stuff in orbit, falling. The entelek woke Rona and her eyes gleamed.

“Are those fireworks for my birthday?”

I made sure we were on the other side of the world, the entelek murmured in Bek’s ear. We have a little longer.

“I said we should have gone to the stars,” complained Bek. “But nobody listened.”

There are ships outbound even now.

Bek wasn’t much interested in the fate of those who had fled without him. He’d expected to feel more than this, but no one really believes in their own end.

“How long do we have?” Rona asked.

Not long.

Bek noticed how the entelek’s voice softened when speaking to Rona. So he sat down beside her and she squeezed his hand.

“I enjoyed my birthday, Jammes.”

He surprised himself. “Yes, so did I.”

He gazed at the woman he had married some lifetimes ago. “You know, this is our last chance to be honest, so I want to say sorry about…”

Her smile grew empty.

I knew you would spoil it. She is in a loop. She will never be more content than she is at this moment.

“No wonder we hated you.”

You said goodbye once before and made her very unhappy.

The entelek had fashioned an agent that over-expressed oxytocin to briefly make Bek more compassionate, more human, but it wasn’t a precise tool. He was becoming maudlin.

Bek wiped his eyes. “What does a machine know?”

And how much of your cortex is circuitry now?

Bek swore at the empty air.

A short-lived effect then. Perhaps the end of the world concentrated the mind wonderfully.

“What’s this?”

A genuine Les Paul.

There were giant amps and a tumbled heap of speakers in the dunes. Just touching the guitar strings lofted seabirds all along the shore. Bek pursed his lips, debating with himself.

There really isn’t much time.

“1975, old reckoning. The Rover, from the Physical Graffiti double album.”

The wind had picked up and the evening was brighter and hotter than it should be in England.


He crashed out the first few chords better than he had ever played them, then cranked the amps up to eleven until it sounded like mountains shifting, or the roar of oceans emptying their basins. He squeezed his eyes shut against the brilliance and struck a pose with the guitar, a furnace wind whipping his hair. He shouted the words into the storm, though it was beyond words.

He played on as the world ended.



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