Epitaph in a Bottle

Albine poured the white wine in two glasses and put the bottle down on the stone table. She looked out from the shady terrace to the vineyard and to the trucks and tractors in the distance with workers swarming like ants around them.

Mark observed his host, the tan, the wrinkles on her face and the short gray hair bleached by the sun telling the story of a life lived mostly outdoors. He took his glass and swirled the wine inside. He glanced to the vineyard and said, “La liberté est ce que vous faites avec ce…”

Albine closed her eyes and sighed. “Please don’t quote Sartre to me. It’s beside the point, your pronunciation is horrible and it doesn’t help at all.”

Mark blushed and looked away.

She looked at him. “I know you are trying to help me with philosophy, but this really is neither the place nor the time.” She looked back at the vineyard. “What I need now is a friend with whom to drink this last bottle, nothing else.”

Mark drank a bit. He never had really appreciated that specific wine, but then he never had had a sophisticated taste. He looked to the workers who seemed ready to begin. Chainsaws sputtered to life. He put his glass back on the table, and glanced to Albine who was again staring at the vineyard, her own glass untouched.

Mark saw the first grapevine getting cut down. “You had to do it. I know it is hard, but it will save the rest of your work, and you have done so many other great things.”

“Do you know how long I have worked to bring the Gouais blanc back here?” Albine drummed with her fingers on the table.

Mark shook his head. “I only know you were already doing it when we met the first time.”

“It has been sixteen years.” She turned to Mark, then took her glass and delicately sipped from it. “I put sixteen years of my life into this. I think I deserve a bit of misery without all that silly American Optimism.”

Mark rose an eyebrow. “Now, that seems a bit…”

She waved her hand. “Ah, let an old lady be bitter and let her use some sweeping generalizations.”

They sat in silence as the workers began to cut down the plants. While some proceeded with the chainsaws others pulled the cut down plants to the trucks parked on the road at the side of the hill.

Mark drank another bit of the wine. He tried to taste all the subtle variations others told him about, but he was somehow missing them. He looked dejected at the glass, then to Albine who was observing him with what could be a thin smile. He looked at the bottle, then said, “You know, I love you dearly, and I appreciate you wanted me at your side, but maybe I’m not the best person with which to celebrate this last bottle.”

Albine’s smile grew slightly. “I don’t need someone incensing my wine, I need a friend. And, besides that, this wine isn’t very good.” She drank a bit. “I worked long and hard trying to improve it while strictly adhering to our traditions, but I still never seem to get it right. I sold all the other bottles, but that is because of their intrinsic rarity, not their quality.” She scoffed. “Had to give it to a bunch of self-important windbags who couldn’t taste the difference between a Pinot gris and varnish. But I had to recoup the losses somehow.”

Mark chuckled, then let out a loud laugh.

Albine turned again to the vineyard. “Maybe it was a vanity project, maybe it was a lost cause, but I really wanted to bring those grapes back. And now history repeats itself and the Wine Blight destroys it all again.” She sighed.

Mark reached over the table, putting his hand on Albine’s. “Was there really nothing else to do?”

Albine shook her head, then put her other hand on Mark’s. “No, I tried to use the original variety, with its weaknesses and all.” The sound of the chainsaws buzzed in the background. “You restore old cars, you, among my friends, are the one that understands. That’s why I asked for you to be here with me.”

Mark pulled his hand, and leaned against the back of the chair. He looked at the vineyard, he looked at his glass. He took another sip, and he smiled. Now he could taste it. “Yes, I think I get it.”

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Epitaph in a Bottle

Apocalypse, Inc.

“The seas will turn red and boil. Blood will rain down from the heavens and the four horsemen will sweep the land, destruction and despair following their trail!”

“Meh, kind of boring and, well, it misses the point by a wide margin.”

Larry looked at me with his hands still raised above his head in a grand gesture. I kind of liked it when Larry got stumped, he always got that kind of lost expression on his face that I found hilarious. He slowly lowered his arms and glared at me. “What’s your problem?”

I sipped my coffee, a disgusting brew coming directly from the coffee-maker from hell we had in the office. It was black as the night, bitter as regret and no amount of cream or sugar could mask the taste of tar. It was also strong enough to give a narcoleptic sloth heart racing, which was the reason we persisted in drinking the stuff.

I looked at the wall full of concept art behind Larry and shook my head. “First, that’s all old stuff. I mean, boiling seas? The four horsemen? It’s like every other apocalypse we have seen. Second, I find your reliance on Christian symbols a bit of disrespectful of some of our customers. We are planning the end of the world for a widely varied audience with different beliefs and cultural backgrounds. And third, we have children in our audience.”

Larry’s eyes bulged, it was quite funny. “You can’t be serious. Are you telling me that we have to make the End of the World PG rated? The Apocalypse is not a dinner party!”

I put my mug on the desk, shuffling a bit of paper aside to avoid to stain some important document. “Quoting Mao is not helping your case, and it also kind of brings me back on my second objection. We have a strong Chinese audience. They have different sensibilities, we have to cater to them too.”

Larry became agitated, he waved his arms before stomping to the wall and pointing to different pictures showing an admittedly evocative if pedestrian end of the world. “I understand the christian origin, but this are archetypes that have permeated the world culture. Most people may not know the source material, but everyone knows the four horsemen!”

“And that is the first problem. Everyone knows them, probably nobody will be surprised when they appear.”

“Obviously nobody will be surprised, we announced the end of the world!”

“Yes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t put a bit more effort in it. It’s not the first world we end, we can’t repeat ourselves.”

Larry deflated, I felt almost sorry for him. I knew he had worked hard for it, but it was better to sink any doomed projects now than in a later development phase. As fun as it was poking at him, he was a great worker and seeing his efforts wasted was a tad sad.

He sulked a bit. “Why do we care so much? It’s the end, there won’t be anything after it.”

I stood up and put my hand on his shoulder. “The Boss cares, so we care too. And you know there will be something new after this, the guys on the upper stages have already begun the development. We also have a certain fame we have to keep up.”

Larry sighed, but the gears in his precious little head had begun to turn again. “Can we have a few different apocalypses? You know, something that leverages the different cultures?”

I shook my head. “Sorry, no budget for it. We have a lot of money for a single spectacular ending, but if we begin to differentiate then it will stretch thin fast. Come on, you know the dance, it’s not the first time we do this. OK, it’s a bit different from your usual stuff, but you are not a newbie in the business.”

He turned around and picked a picture from the wall, it depicted a cloaked figure over the burning ruins of a city. “And the rating?”

“PG is the upper limit. We all thought your Ragnarok was awesome, but this time we have to use less gore and sex.”

He sighed, sat down and stared at the wall. “Man, I never thought that closing Barbie’s World Online would be so freaking hard.”

Apocalypse, Inc.