“We have arrived in London,” spoke the plane, in a calm, toneless woman's voice. Burns rubbed his eyes, sluggishly rising out of his bed.
“Time?” asked the scientist, rubbing his eyes.
“December 31, 2099, 4:07 AM, Greenwich Mean Time,” answered the plane. Burns lightly slapped himself in the face, still trying to wake up. Shit. He'd asked for just the time. Didn't need the date. Didn't need a reminder he was out in the field on New Year's Eve. He should be used to it by now. He'd been doing this every day of the year for longer than he could remember. Still, the holidays were never easy. Not that they were any easier for the outside world, of course, but it wasn't their job to remember. They didn't have to know that there was a time, not too long ago, when these were days of joy.
Burns staggered over to the nearby sink, splashing water onto his face. He cupped his hands beneath the faucet, taking a drink. Maybe he didn't have to do the usual load of work today. Maybe he could just gather a few books, enough to say he'd done something, then get back to Urumqi. He could gather double tomorrow to make up for it. Not like there'd be anything else for him to do.
Burns stepped out of the plane, the dry air of England hitting him in full force. To his left was a pit. In the days of old, Burns was told, the hole was home to a canal, spreading rich, flowing water throughout the city. No more water to be found here, he thought. And this was the lucky part of London. Dilapidated buildings towered over him from each side. He looked up at one of them, imagined what kind of sights were lurking from within. Who knows how many survivors were sleeping near Burns, blissfully unaware of his presence.
Above him was the night sky, stars twinkling overhead. Burns had learned long ago to go out at night whenever he could help it. Working in the dark wasn't easy, but working at day was even worse. Day means the Sun beating down on him. Day means packing extra provisions just to be sure an old man like him won't collapse from the heat. Day means survivors are awake, pleading to Burns with children in hand to take them with him, and every time he'd have to look them straight in the eye and say no. But worst of all, day means a clear view of what the outside world had become.
In the distance was a great building, its bricks dilapidated by the passage of time, yet majestic all the same. In front was Isaac Newton, clad in bronze, still peering over his diagrams, still standing sentinel after all these years, oblivious to the color fading from his skin. Burns waved to the statue, his only company at the library. It was sort of comforting, knowing it was still standing. He wondered how long it would be before the corrosion finally did it in.
Burns stepped into the building, scanning the shelves for books worth collecting. A Bible caught his eye, King James. Burns shook his head. You've got Bibles to spare, he told himself. First book you put in the collection. Skip it. Leave room for something else. The scientist kept wandering through the halls, occasionally stopping to grab any title that got his attention. The Communist Manifesto. A Study in Scarlet. On the Revolutons of Heavenly Spheres. Before too long, Burns was struggling to hold onto the stack. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a peculiar book sitting by itself, a neglected paperback collecting dust. With an odd hesitance, he set his collection down, rubbing at the book's spine for a glimpse at the title. “Vampires from the Deep,” it read. Biting his lip, Burns pulled it from the shelf, and began to read.
“Ocean vampires,” snorted the hunter. “The most nefarious of them all. Can't plunge a stake too well when you're underwater.” Burns shut the book, shaking his head in laughter. Awful stuff. Truly awful. He stared down at the book again, then placed it with the others in his pile. This was the work of a human being, probably long dead now. Someone decided to pour his effort into this, and for that it was worth more than gold to Burns. The scientist picked up the books, briefly struggling under their weight, then headed out of the library.
Burns returned to the outside world. The sky was getting lighter. Wouldn't be long before the horrible Sun returned. He had better be gone before then. Burns walked past the statue of Newton, pausing to take one last look at it. There was a pigeon perched on the statue, its head darting left and right. Burns set the books down on the ground, taking a moment to admire the bird. It had been a long time since he last saw an actual animal, besides the insects, of course. Wait a minute, he thought. A bird. There isn't one of those in the dictionary yet, is there? Burns hastily rummaged through his pockets, pulling out his phone. The scientist snapped a picture, mere moments before the pigeon flew off. Maybe he'd add that tonight, if there was time.
He lifted his books again, making his way toward the plane. A huge white jet, all for him and his work. Travel was a necessity for what he was doing, but Burns always hated having to look at the thing. It seemed wasteful, a big jet like that soaring across the world just for one person. Of course, with what the world had come to, he supposed it didn't make much difference.
Once the plane was in the air, Burns decided he had best prepare something to eat. Entering the kitchen, he approached the tank of mealworms, still blindly crawling through the terrarium, blissfully unaware of how far they were from nature. Maybe making a stew would be nice today, he thought. After a while, he was staring down at a bowl of peculiar brown broth, mealworms and shrivelled potatoes floating through it. He eagerly swallowed down his first spoonful, then stared again at the tank, paying close attention to all the writhing insects inside. Burns couldn't stand it. Elsewhere, people were being forced to eat the awful synthetic stuff. Others were fighting just to have a taste of that. And here he was, lucky enough to eat real, honest-to-God meat, every single day. He was spoiled, he really was. He couldn't stand that kind of guilt.
Hours passed. Burns paced, he napped, he thumbed through the books he'd gathered. This was probably the hardest part of the job, all the waiting. Even in a plane like this, you couldn't cross half the world easily. Burns shook his head, tried not think of all the distance he was travelling. It was easy to forget it, spending so much time locked up in the plane and the collection, but it really was a big world. So big, yet so fragile, bested and felled by the bugs living on her skin.
Eventually, the plane landed. Burns stepped out, looking up at the mountains of Xinjiang. Above him, the sky was pitch black. Night to night. Funny how that works out. In the distance was home, a great steel cube in the middle of the wasteland. Books in hand, Burns stepped inside. As soon as he was through the door, he was greeted by an unconquerable row of books, everything Burns had been able to find worth saving. Homer and Darwin. Shakespeare and Locke. Dante and Nietzsche. Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Confucius, and Zoroaster, all peas in a pod, while Cervantes and Ovid stood guard. Every great mind that had picked up a pen in the last five thousand years was nestled in here somewhere. Them, and the author of “Vampires from the Deep.” Burns searched for any free space left on the shelves, placing the newest books wherever he could, then made his way deeper into the building, off to more pressing matters.
Burns ventured down the corridors, past the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. It wasn't an easy haul, but he'd managed to get most of the Louvre before the flooding got to it. Hell of a month that was. Further down, to the photographs. Images of the Pyramids, the Great Wall, the Statue of Liberty, and anything else he couldn't hope to fit. Pictures of steam engines and airplanes, printers and firearms. Pictures of war, in all its horror, children screaming, bodies on the ground, coupled with pictures of triumph. The soldiers returning home. Hillary on Mt. Everest. Armstrong on the Moon. Past all the spectacles, until Burns came to his destination. In the midst of all the splendor, his living quarters were rather plain. A bed, a bathroom, a kitchen with a tank of crickets next to it, and of course, the computer. Burns sat down and uploaded his photo. Soon the pigeon was on the screen, still staring back at Burns with those uncomfortably wide eyes.
“Bird,” typed Burns next to the picture. “Oiseau. Pájaro. Птица. 鳥. पक्षी. Πουλί. Avis.” Another entry in the dictionary. Maybe by the time he was dead, the book would be something presentable. Something whoever found the crypt would be able to put to good use. What if he left out a word, he wondered? What if he died forgetting to add something important? That word would die with him. The future would be stuck without it, forced to make do with fragments of all the treasures he'd left behind. The idea tore Burns up. He shook his head, forcing all the horrible thoughts out of his head. He'd just have to make sure he didn't forget any words. That's why he keeps going. If the project was complete, he'd have scrambled to find the nearest bullet to put in his head. But there was still work to be done, always work, and for that, he'd need to stay strong, trudge on.
Burns looked down at the clock at the bottom of the screen. Eleven fifty-seven, it read. Midnight was scarce minutes away. Soon he'd be looking at a new year, new century, yet the world would change little. No more than it already had, at least. He took a deep breath, rubbed his temples, tried to focus away from the heat that permeated the chamber. Time to carry on the New Year's tradition. He brought up the video. Had to watch it every year since it happened, remind himself of what he's doing.
The dictionary vanished from the screen. In its place was the sight of a great round chamber, its walls lined with the blurred sight of suited figures. In the center, being looked down on by the whole world, was Burns. A much younger man, still with a smooth face and color in his hair, sweating buckets as he awaited judgment.
“Your proposal is...an interesting one, Dr. Burns,” said a gruff man's voice off-screen, clearing his throat. “But why should it be funded? You still can't seem to answer that. With all the pressing matters at hand, shouldn't all our efforts be focused on the future?” The young man took a deep breath, while the old man watching did the same in unison.
“This is about the future, sir,” said Burns, somehow managing a smile amidst the pressure. “I'm thinking far into the future. After we're gone.”
“You're saying that like we will be gone,” interrupted the voice.
“I don't want it to be true any more than you do, sir, but I don't have high hopes for us. At the rate things are going, we'll be dead before too long. But the good Earth will survive, scarred but far from defeated. Maybe one day, it'll have healed enough for it to allow animals with reason to walk on its surface again. And if that day comes, I want them to know about us.”
“You want them to have records, you mean.”
“We made mistakes, lots of them, and we'll suffer the consequences for it. But we did good things too. We created machines, built cities, told stories, painted pictures. We crossed oceans, scaled mountains, even stepped off-world. We studied our surroundings, learned how to think, how to love. We may have to die, but I don't see why our memories should go with us.”
“So your motivation for all of this is...” The young Burns sniffled a little, fighting to stay composed.
“I want to do this so whoever inherits this planet will know all we've done. I want our achievements to be remembered. For the sake of old times.” Burns paused the video. That was all he needed to see. He looked down at the clock. Twelve oh-two. Fuck. It was already too late to do what he should've, but it was best he try and go through with it all the same. He walked over to the fridge and pulled out the last of his treasures, Muscadine from a vineyard now underwater. Burns poured himself a glass and hoisted it into the air, a toast with all his dead companions.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?”