Dan spent a long time tying to calculate the exact point at which the world had ended. The romantic in him liked to think it had happened when Anna left him, in a tornado of tear-soaked screeching and slamming doors. That had seemed apocalyptic enough at the time. Or perhaps the night of the storm, when he’d watched forked lightning crackle across the sky. That’s what the end of the world is supposed to look like.
In reality, it was more likely to have happened as he handed a cappuccino to that sour-faced American, the idiot who always paid with a twenty despite the perfectly viable stack of fives and tens crammed into his wallet. This was the first time Dan noticed the burnt-hair sort of smell that he later came to associate with solar energy tearing reality apart.
The fact that the world had ended at all came to his attention a bit later on, when he first spoke to Geoffrey. This event had been apocalyptic in its own way, at least as far as Dan’s sanity was concerned, because Geoffrey was a cat. Or rather, he wasn’t a cat, but definitely looked like one, which is more than enough to send the mind scampering to the border of hysteria on a stone-cold-sober Friday evening.
He’d been walking back from work, taking the back roads to avoid the pub-and-bar crowds, when he noticed the smell becoming particularly strong. He’d looked up, and the air seemed to shimmer, like it does after rain on a very hot day. Except that the day was warm at best, and it hadn’t rained in a week.
“Solar energy.” A confiding voice came from the shadows. “Slipping through a temporal schism.”
A small black cat walked out of the shadows. Dan spent a moment searching for a rational source of the voice, failed to find one, and decided it was best for his mental state to just pretend it had never happened and leave rapidly, when the cat spoke again.
“The world ended, you know. Sun blew up.”
Dan looked around. The world looked fine to him. All the bricks, concrete and bin-bags were right where they were supposed to be. He looked up at the setting sun; that looked fine too. A bit orange, maybe, but definitely still in one piece. What seemed like a far more pressing issue at the time was the fact that a cat was talking to him. He was willing to give pretending that it hadn’t happened a hearty second attempt, but the cat wasn’t having any of it.
“Look, I get that this is probably strange for you. If it makes you feel any better, I’m not actually a cat.”
Dan stared at it hard. It didn’t appear any less cat-shaped, or, for that matter, any less vocal.
“I’m more of a…well, a non-cat, would probably be a good place to start. I suppose I’m a sort of caretaker. I make sure the sun comes up and gravity goes down, that sort of thing.”
“But you’re a cat,” Dan said. This still seemed by far the most pressing issue.
“Not a cat,” corrected the cat. “Look, that’s not the important part anyway. I just told you the world has ended. Worry about that instead.” The cat looked at him, then looked around, then looked annoyed. “Okay, I know it doesn’t look like the world has ended, but it has. It’s just not quite caught up with itself yet.”
“I have to go home,” Dan said, somewhat shaken (understandably, in his opinion, given the circumstances). Home, as soon as possible, seemed like the most sensible thing at that point, and the only viable alternative to talking cats and an imperceptible apocalypse.
“Oh, fine then.” The cat rolled its eyes. Dan had never seen a cat roll its eyes before. The sight did little to help his ailing sanity. “Don’t worry about it, boss.” The cat gave an inappropriately wolfish grin. “You’re probably just crazy, right? I’ll see you around.”
Dan stood very still and watched the cat slink off into the shadows. He watched it very carefully, to make sure it was properly gone. After he was completely certain that he was alone, he turned around and stepped briskly out of the alley, wishing very hard that he could forget the last five minutes.
The rest of the way home, Dan ran through all the scenarios in which that situation could have occurred without him being completely insane. There weren’t very many of them. He concluded that either he was mad, or the world had in fact ended. In either case, there wasn’t much he could do about it. When he got back to the flat, he found a bottle of wine and drank the whole thing; it seemed like an appropriate response to the situation. Then he went to bed.
He arrived late for work the next day with a crashing headache, but it turned out this didn’t matter. No one was in the cafe. There was no staff. There were no customers. The espresso bars stood unmanned. There was, however, still coffee, so he made himself an especially strong one and stepped back outside.
There was no one on the street. He tried to remember if he had seen anyone on the way to work, but he’d been too hung-over to pay any attention. He was sure he would have noticed the high street being completely empty, though. He looked about; the air was shimmering again, little queasy swirls where there shouldn’t be. The burnt hair smell pervaded the air, and was growing stronger.
Dan felt something brush his leg. He looked down with a mounting sense of dread. The small black cat was rubbing itself contentedly against his shin.
“Looks like it’s just you and me now, boss,” the cat said, rubbing its cheek vigorously on Dan’s shoe.
“Uh, would you stop that?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry, of course. Occupational hazard with this physical alignment. So, have you decided if you’re mad yet?” The cat grinned.
Dan wrinkled his nose. “What is that?” The mounting smell had become almost overpowering.
“Oh, that’s the smell of all living organisms on the planet burning to a crisp,” the cat said cheerfully. “It’s bleeding through the temporal rift.”
Dan looked around. He couldn’t see any burning corpses. Everything looked pretty much normal. Just a bit emptier. He looked at the sky; the sun was high and bright, dazzling his eyes and tormenting his headache. It still looked distinctly un-exploded. “I don’t get it,” he said. “If the sun blew up, then why’s it still there?”
“Well, it is and it isn’t.” The cat frowned. “This might be a bit hard to follow. See, the sun exploded. When it did, it released a motherload of solar energy, which has messed the flow of time up a bit. Right now, reality hasn’t caught up with the fact that it’s ended yet. The world’s gone, burnt to a charred husk, but at the same time it isn’t, and we’re in it still. You following?”
Dan thought about this for a while. “No,” he said at last.
“Well, it’s not important anyway.” The cat grew businesslike, in as much as it’s possible for a cat to appear businesslike. “What’s important is that The Boss wants to see you.”
“Your boss?” Dan figured it probably wasn’t his boss. She’d likely been incinerated by solar energy. Not an altogether unpleasant thought.
“The Boss, boss,” the cat said with extra emphasis.
“Who knows? The Boss sure as hell don’t tell me anything. But we should probably be going. Follow me.”
The cat started to pad up the high street. It stopped and looked back to check that Dan was following. Looking about, he was at a loss for anything better to do, so he tried to put the overwhelming insanity of the situation out of his head and followed.
The cat introduced himself as Geoffrey. He was some sort of transient being currently employed as the world’s caretaker. “Of course, I’ll get it in the neck for letting the sun blow up, but when a star decides it’s had enough, there’s not a whole lot anyone can do about it, y’know?”
As reality began to unfold around them, they discussed life, and its impeding end. Dan described life as a physics student and part-time barista. Geoffrey described – as well as he could in mortal language, at least – life as an inter-dimensional caretaker of reality. They concluded that the two boiled down to more or less the same thing; too much mindless repetition, not enough sexual intercourse with attractive members of the opposite gender.
As they went on, things started to become less distinct. Everything seemed brighter than usual, and Dan had trouble making out details on the buildings they passed. The sun seemed to grow larger in the sky, unusually large, yet it didn’t hurt his eyes to look at. Soon the buildings didn’t look like real buildings anymore, more like cardboard cut-outs of buildings, lopsided and two-dimensional. It didn’t look like the high street any more, but more like some cartoon high street drawn by an overzealous child.
“Wouldn’t worry about it, boss,” Geoffrey said, when pressed. “It’s just your brain trying to process reality breaking down. Just go with it; it’ll get cool in a bit.”
Soon the buildings were little more than indistinct shapes, fuzzy oblongs lining the sides of the street. Only it wasn’t a street any more, just a thin grey line stretching forwards towards the rapidly growing sun. The shapes that had been buildings seemed to converge and tessellate, stretching out into infinite geometric patterns that were too complex for Dan’s eyes to follow.
The path narrowed and faded, until it became just a single line of white pointing towards the heart of the sun, then it was gone completely, and they continued walking through empty space. The shapes and patterns that spread out before them twisted and simplified, becoming great coloured blocks and then shrinking away, becoming nothing but a colourful miasma that swirled around the whiteness of the sun, now huge before them, bigger than anything Dan had ever seen.
Soon the sun was so big that it encompassed everything, and then they were passing through it and into it. Dan thought he should be blinded, but he was not. He thought he’d at least feel hot, but he didn’t feel much of anything, really. Everything was white. He turned around, and everything was white behind him as well. There was just him and Geoffrey, walking into the endless white expanse.
After what seemed like an eternity had passed, he could make something out in the distance. An object shining brightly, distinct and familiar. As he approached, Dan realised it was an espresso bar, gleaming and immaculate, standing unattended in the heart of the sun.
He approached with a sense of wonder, and started checking through the bar as if on autopilot. Everything seemed to be in working order, and it was fully stocked with coffee and milk, in unbranded packets.
He became aware of a presence; somewhere out in the white expanse, something awesome and inhuman. He looked around for Geoffrey, but the cat was nowhere to be seen. When he looked up again, a figure stepped out of the endless glare. Dan had to shield his eyes; the whiteness all around was bright, yet this figure made the sun itself seem dim, so brightly did it shine.
“Good, you’re here.” The voice resounded with all the weight of the cosmos. “Even with an infinite number of universes to oversee, you would not believe how difficult it is to find someone who can make a decent cappuccino. Would you mind?”
Dan hesitated for a moment, then flipped the grinder on.