The man and woman had lived on the island for as long as they could remember. It was their job to tend the flowers in the garden of precious metals, to clean the rust from the iron orchids and fill the ceramic vases with brittle copper roses. The island was small, but the man and woman never went wanting for anything.
They had always known that they were not real people. No blood beat in their veins, and their glass eyes shone only with the reflected glow of the electric sun. The man's golden hair never wavered in the wind, and the woman's shining silver skin was perfectly cold. But they had always loved each other. When they finished their work for the day, they retreated to the edge of the island and sat on the cliff overlooking the beach, watching the waves of acid lapping the shore. Sometimes they sat in the shade of a gemstone tree, the ground beneath it scattered with sapphires. At night they slept in each other's arms in a field of steel lilies.
The man had taken to watching the sky, and had noticed that the sun was growing weaker. Usually it pulsed strongest at midday and dimmed at night to a soft luminosity. At noon, at its highest intensity, it cast high-contrast shadows over the brass tulips and a nacreous gleam upon the pearl-studded stalks of the platinum daffodils. But now the light dimmed even during the day. The man and woman knew the sun's routine by heart, and the recent changes disturbed them. They resolved to question the Hermit when he returned to them in midsummer.
Everything the man and woman knew about the world had been taught to them by the Hermit. He was an old man who came to them once a year, sailing across the sea of acid in his lacquered hardwood ship. The Hermit had showed them how to care for the flowers, how to arrange them to produce the greatest beauty, how to leave them on the beach as an offering to the gods. And he had told them of the other world, Heaven, with its green fields, and people of flesh and blood, and other mysteries.
The man and woman felt certain that the Hermit would help them. But as the months went by, it became clear that the sun was dying. As they walked together in the garden they often felt the sky growing dark above them. Sometimes the light would fade entirely, leaving them stranded in darkness for hours. And the sun's decay spread to the flowers: when the man went to the orchids he found them furred with rust like a fungus, and the copper roses crumbled in his hand. After one long period without light, the orange frost spread even to the flowers in the garden of precious metals. The man and woman knew that gold and platinum were not supposed to rust, but it seemed to them that if the light could fade, anything was possible. Before the failing of the sun, they had known no change.
When darkness fell the woman rushed to the man's side, and they sat and waited for the light to return. At these times they were afraid, but as they drew close to each other they knew they could wait forever. If they stayed together, there was nothing to fear.
At the approach of midsummer the man and woman set out for the beach with a basket of flowers. They had spent the day gathering the last few untainted roses from the garden of precious metals and had arranged them in the fashion that signalled welcome. When they had laid them out on the beach, they walked along the shore and scanned the horizon for signs of the Hermit's ship. Towards noon the man sighted a dot moving towards them over the waves, and they moved closer to watch, careful not to tread too close to the acid tide. Eventually the ship pulled in and the Hermit debarked. He did not greet them at first, but moved to inspect the basket of flowers. Taking one of the copper roses in hand, he held it up to the sun and inspected the way the light reflected off its petals. Then he put it back in place, lifted up the basket and carried it out to shore. Gently he floated it onto the waves, letting them claim it. The flowers dissolved soundlessly. The Hermit turned back to look at the man and woman. They bowed, and he asked the question he always asked them.
-Are you happy here?
-Yes, they answered in unison.
The man thought how to broach the problem of the sun. He did not want the Hermit to think that it had resulted from anything they had done. As far as he knew, he and the woman had performed their duties to the best of their ability. But he did not have to say anything. As the three of them walked across the beach, they felt the light overhead fading. Before long darkness settled over the island, though it was just past noon.
-The sun is dying, the woman said.
The Hermit's expression remained neutral.
-Yes. I knew that it would when I built it. It's lasted longer than I expected.
-What will happen when the sun dies?
-I expect that the garden will die too. But you don't have to worry, I've prepared a ship to take you to Heaven. You can come and live with me there.
The woman came over and stood next to the Hermit.
-What is it like in Heaven? she asked.
-It's more beautiful than you can imagine. There are plants that grow from the earth and flower and die within a single season. There are men and women who live for a century or less, with coursing blood and warm skin. There is a different kind of sun that rises in the east and sets in the west.
The woman looked troubled.
-But isn't it frightening that everything dies so quickly?
-You might think so at first. But it's only because you've lived so long. In Heaven, everyone is used to a shorter life.
The woman nodded at the Hermit's words, but said nothing.
At length the Hermit announced that he was leaving the island for now, but would return tomorrow in his ship to carry the three of them across the sea of acid to the shores of Heaven. As he stepped aboard the ship and made ready to depart, the sun returned to its full intensity.
The man and woman watched the ship disappear over the horizon. When it had gone, they turned and walked back up to the garden. Just for a moment they felt the sun flicker, as if it had been struck by a sudden convulsion.
They spent the rest of the afternoon gathering untarnished flowers for the Hermit's arrival the next day. There were scarcely enough left to form an arrangement. The roses had all but rotted, and most of the orchids crumbled at the touch. Once the man found what he thought to be a perfect silver rose, but when he turned it over he saw a sickly greenish tint spreading across its petals. Its usual fragrance was gone; instead of the sharp scent of silver, there was only a dull metallic odor, the dull greenish stench of mineral decay.
With only a few flowers gathered in their baskets, they returned to the cliff overlooking the beach. The cliff face sloped down to a grouping of rocks that soon gave way to sand. The man and woman sat down next to each other and placed their baskets beside them. From here, they could make out the little cove where the Hermit's ship had landed.
The sun stuttered. The wind sang over the sands. For a long time the man could think of nothing to say. Eventually the woman broke the silence.
-I feel afraid, she said.
-What is there to fear? the man asked.
The woman took his hand, and her lovely unchanging glass eyes rolled towards him.
-The Hermit told us that the people of flesh and blood only live for a century. And what about the lovers in Heaven? Does their love only last for a season, like the flowers?
-Perhaps it fades as quickly.
-Then I don't want to go there.
The man lifted her hand up and examined it in the light of the electric sun. Her nails were chips of jade inset in slender silver fingers. He pressed them to his cheek as he stared out to the sea.
-I once thought that the Ideals were everything. I wanted to please the Hermit, and I spent hours talking with him, discussing the Ideals and the Greater Mysteries. But now I feel that I only want to keep living with you forever in the garden.
The woman's hand moved gently across his cheek and came to rest on his shoulder.
-I feel the same, she said.
They sat for a while in silence, and a resolution grew between them. They did not need to speak it aloud, but both of them knew they would not leave the island.
When dusk fell, the sun began its regular program of reduced intensity. But now its dimness was punctuated by flareups of light, sharp stabs like the last beats of a dying heart. The man and woman walked hand-in-hand down to the beach as the light broke around them. In its irregular flashes, they caught sudden frozen views of each other, of the man's golden hair and the woman's silver skin.
They crossed to the shore and saw before them the sterile surface of the waves, transparent like molten glass. The man turned to the woman and spoke.
-We will never bleed, or grow old, or attain any of the other Ideals. But we should not be afraid, because we can never remember having lived. What does it matter for us to die, if we no longer desire Heaven?
-I have no dreams, the woman said. I have never felt able to dream. And so I feel undeserving of everything, since I feel as if I can never repay my happiness.
The man looked at her, as if searching her features for some hidden meaning. Then he turned back to the sea, and as he looked at the movement of the waves, a sadness fell upon him. But when he looked at the woman again, he did not feel sad. He said:
-You remember the night a hundred years ago, when we sat speaking with the Hermit under the sapphire trees. At that time, I often dreamed of the Mysteries.
They came within range of the tide. When they felt the acid lapping at their feet, they stopped and turned to each other.
-I love you, the man said.
-I love you, the woman answered.
Still holding hands, they walked into the sea.
At first they felt only a rising warmth, as if they were stepping into a pool of liquid light. Slowly it spread from their feet up through their legs to the rest of their bodies, caressing their polished flesh. Only when it reached the line of their lips did they feel anything resembling pain, and even then it was only a higher intensity, an ecstasy, like looking at the sun. The sea rushed in through their mouths, their eyes, filling them from the inside, their hands still linked. As the warmth dissolved their other senses they were left with only touch, only the feel of each other's hands.
A strange sensation came over them. They felt as if, rather than the sea entering them, they were passing out of themselves and into it. They tried to focus on the feeling of their linked hands, but it was difficult to remember exactly where they linked, difficult to remember anything. Their awareness faded, lost in the greater warmth.
The man and woman's iron organs corroded slowly. Their polished flesh took longer; for hours afterward, two traceries of silver and gold lingered beneath the waves like sunken statues. Then they dissolved, first breaking into fragments. With their arms eaten away, their clasped hands floated together like a pair of glittering fish. As they drifted down to the sand, the sea picked them apart particle by particle.
The stillness of night settled over the waves. The last light faded, dimmed to black. But the sky did not stay black for long. A brownness like late autumn leaves spread from the dead sun, a color past death, as if the darkness were rusting. Slowly it filled the sky and crept over the island, until it covered the beach, and the cliff, and the garden of precious metals.