This is a really long one that I’ve been working on for quite some time. Again it’s SciFi, not my strength, but the prompt was good. The prompt would ruin the surprise though, so I’ve included it at the end.
I’m awake. That’s the first coherent thought that fights its way to the surface, through the layers of dust and grime of my deep-space slumber. The second is: well d’uh.
I want to giggle at that – the wake-up process is making me feel silly and dopey – but my diaphragm is too focused on remembering how to breathe normally, and unconcerned with such frivolities. Come on, Sonja. This is a momentous occasion, be serious, for fuck’s sake.
A third thought suddenly rips its way through the remaining sluggishness: holy shit my foot itches! My arms are not as on-the-ball as my diaphragm however, and will not yet move on their own. So I am forced to put up with the agonising tingling.
I hear a hiss behind me, and know that the Deep Sleep Unit is disappearing into the headrest of my Pod. I wonder how well it worked? I lift my eyes to the curved glass window on the front of my chrome-coated pod, and see a reflection that is only a little different to what I remember, and I send out a silent prayer of thanks to whoever’s listening.
The technology is – well, was – brand new and, up until this point, untested. I’d been rather concerned that the aging process wouldn’t be fully stopped, and that I would wake up a withered old husk, but thankfully all worked as planned. My face muscles remember how to move, and I watch my reflection smile back at me from the Pod’s window.
My eyes travel up from my reflection to the digital clock above the window. It blinks benignly at me, as if it counts nothing more unusual than the length of a movie or how long my pizza has been crisping in the oven. The last thing I did before settling down for my rather lengthy snooze was set that clock counting. 1 SECOND, 2 SECONDS, 3 SECONDS. By the time 30 SECONDS flashed by I was already asleep. The number that blinks at me now is 1036, but it ceased counting minutes a long, long time ago. Hours, too. Now it blinks the word YEARS at me, over and over again.
I stare at that number. Every time it disappears I think to myself surely I was mistaken, surely it said 103.6, but 1036 comes back just the same every time. I am over a thousand years old. That fact is almost impossible to process, so I push it aside.
My arms work now, but I cannot seem to bend down to scratch. I’m suddenly overcome with the fear that I’ve become partially paralysed, but with a wiggle of my toes relief floods through me. I tsk aloud at my panic, and after so much silence the harsh sound actually startles me.
I hear another hiss, this time outside of the little enclosed space that I have called home for the past thousand years. A leg appears, slinging itself over the edge of the smooth, egg-shaped pod to my left. The number 215035 is tattooed above the ankle. I roll my eyes and groan internally. Of course Karn is first up. Always the overachiever!
Slender fingers snake their way over the rounded edge of the pod and grip tightly. A pale, skinny face slowly emerges above them and grins at me, blue eyes sparkling with mirth. I give Karn a scathing look, but he just laughs and greets me with a wave of one of his somewhat gangly arms. My control breaks, and I laugh too. It feels good.
I feel the laughter move my whole body, and realise that I am finally able to scratch that awful itch. Feeling and probably looking as clumsy as a newborn lamb, I awkwardly rub my foot. My throat wakes up enough to let out an audible sigh of relief. It feels like bloody heaven.
Sim was the last to wake, for which we all teased him mercilessly both verbally and physically. He flailed his feeble and uncoordinated arms weakly as Karn tickled him with a feather that he produced from who knows where. The sight of such a huge, muscled man wiggling and giggling like a child dusted away the last of the cobwebs, and as soon as Sim was on his feet we made our way to the training room.
Now the whirring of treadmills and the boisterous laughter of a tight-knit crew fills the air as my feet pound the belt again and again. It feels so good to move, almost like I’ve woken from the dead. Sweat is trickling down my spine and my stomach, my muscles burn, and my breath sounds hoarse with exertion, but I am ecstatic.
I think that somewhere deep inside me, my subconscious has been aware of my self-inflicted coma. The chemicals of living are now rushing through my system, and they are feeding both body and mind like a drug. I feel like a caged animal set free after a life of imprisonment, and all I want to do is run wild across the Zerengheti until I collapse. The treadmill may not be the sprawling plains of Afric, but it’ll work just the same.
Karn is rambling away excitedly next to me as he stretches his impossibly long legs on his own treadmill, and I am half-listening in companionable silence. Now that the ship’s computer has found the first truly habitable planet and woken us all up, it has all become so much more real to him.
He is making bets with himself on what we’ll find when the huge silver airlock hisses open and we set foot on what the Captain has dubbed “Naxul” for the first time. “Huge bugs” is the favourite so far, followed by “super-intelligent aliens who will teach humans everything they know”, but I’d put my money on “absolutely nothing” every single time.
“I suppose super-intelligent aliens wouldn’t actually be a good thing,” Karn muses, “‘cos they’d probably enslave us.”
I can’t help but react to that, and Karn raises an eyebrow at my snort. I suppose I should elaborate. “If someone lands on your planet for the first time, you don’t immediately enslave them. If nothing else, it’s just plain rude!”
“Okay, so they’ll get as much information out of us as they can first, including where we’re from. Then they’ll enslave us and the rest of humanity.”
“They’ve probably got no need for slaves. Probably got amazing technology that our tiny little brains can’t even begin to comprehend. No need for enslaving alien races when the robots that clean your crapper are smarter than them.” My workout’s almost over, so I slow down to a cool-off jog. Karn ponders my point, leaving me to do some musing of my own. “Perhaps, seeing as they’re so smart, they found out a way to avoid the need to crap. Maybe avoid pissing too. How good would that be? Think of all the extra time we’d have if we didn’t need to head to the bathroom several times a day…”
Karn shoots me a disapproving look. He’s never been fond of such crude talk.
An idea strikes me. “Anyway,” I say casually, trying to keep a straight face. “If anything, they’ll breed us for food. After all, that’s what we do to lifeforms with intelligence below ours.”
Karn almost gives himself whiplash as he turns his head to stare at me, jaw lax. “You think so?!” he breathes.
My shoulders raise and lower in a noncommittal shrug. The belt beneath me slows to a stop, and I grab my workout towel from where it was draped over the top of the machine.
The design was unimportant when I purchased the towel – I simply grabbed the first one I saw that would be recognisable amongst the rest of the crew’s laundry – but when I look at it this time it gives me pause. It features imposing yet beautiful snow-capped mountains that gaze down on emerald fields and gently undulating hills, dotted with flora and fauna. I briefly wonder if any such scene exists on Earth anymore. Or if Earth itself even exists anymore.
Then I realise that I am not even slightly equipped, let alone actually ready, to consider such thoughts, and promptly stuff them into the deep dark reaches of the back of my mind to hang out with the concept of my thousand years of age. I fold the towel in half with the colourful if somewhat faded design on the inside, and sling it around my neck. Out of sight, out of mind.
“Well?!” Karn prompts me, his treadmill now stopped and his workout abandoned. “What do you think they’d do with us?”
“Who knows?” I ask with deliberate mystery, waving my hands in a slow, tight circle in front of my face like a Magicienne as my eyes bulge wide. I chuckle at Karn’s disapproving look. “Seriously though. The pigs, cows, and sheep of Earth may have known instinctively that we were predators, but do you think they stopped to consider exactly what the future of farming held for them? No, because their intelligence is inferior to ours. They had and still have no idea.
“I suppose we would just have to wait and see what our instincts told us about theses aliens.” I continue. “Although when you consider how friendly some animals can get with the humans who then turn around and roast them later, you’ve got to wonder if we’d fare any better…”
My legs wobble like jelly in exhaustion as I hop off the treadmill and head to the showers, leaving Karn staring after me with a look of concerned bafflement on a face even paler than usual.
“Come on, people!” Captain Larkon bellows, putting those foghorns he calls lungs to good use.
Karn has been worrying aloud and demanding my reassurances for the whole march down to the airlock, leaving us both breathless stragglers now rushing to catch up. Which is easier for him than for me, seeing as my petite frame is about half his size. I have to jog to match his long stride at the best of times, and my legs are currently pumping like pistons to keep up.
The corridor is quiet except for the thudding of our combat boots on the diamond plate flooring, as well as the rattling of the equipment stacked high on our backs and dangling from countless straps, loops and belts on our armour. Despite the fact that many alien worlds have had vividly different landscapes to our own, our forces have stuck with ol’ favourite moss-green camouflage for our armour. For all our love of gadgetry fads and technological advances, sometimes humans just don’t like change. When you’ve almost no idea what you’re heading into, just go with the comfort of familiarity.
Karn and I finally jog through the ship-side airlock doors, and Larkon eyes us disapprovingly as we fall into line at the rear of the party.
“About bloody time” he scolds, his heavy frown making his tiny eyes disappear even further into the pudgy pink mass of his face. At one time Larkon’s six-foot-five frame had been built like a brick shithouse – even his muscles had muscles – but he’s gone soft in his years. Physically soft, anyway. His manner is as tough as ever.
As if to prove the point, Larkon re-activates his biological foghorns as he begins to stride down the ranks towards the airlock control. “Now, if Karn and Flit are quite caught up on their highly-important gossip” he barks, “we can get on with the less important business of our actual bloody assignment!”
For some reason I always find getting into trouble funny rather than concerning, and I’m struggling to suppress a mischievous grin. As Larkon turns around to fiddle with the controls I risk shooting a glance at my partner in crime.
My humour fades as I see Karn chewing his lip with a distant look in his eyes, still worrying about what we’ll find when the doors hiss open. Not for the first time, I wish I hadn’t opened my big mouth and put the idea of humans-as-food in his overactive imagination.
Karn is normally very easy-going, and I have no idea what’s got him so worried this time. We’ve been on scouting missions before and never come to harm. We’ve had the odd allergic reaction that has swollen faces to twice their usual sizes, but that kind of thing is easily subdued by a quick shot from our Medipack. Yirra broke her leg once, but hell, she could have done that falling down the stairs in her appartment!
Sure, this mission is roughly five hundred times further away than any other that we’ve been on, but so what? There’s no logical reason to assume that Naxul is any less boring and deserted then all of those nearer but less habitable planets. In fact, as it is so similar to Earth that almost zero terraforming would be required, and the computer has done a vast amount of checking for hostile life and found diddly-squat, it’s probably going to be even more boring.
I sigh to myself, and try to keep my mood light and unaffected by Karn’s anxiety.
Larkon jabs at the console’s buttons. Some rather cliche bleeping and blooping noises that sound like they came straight from a cheesy 2080’s sci-fi flick echo around the otherwise silent airlock. The doors behind me close with a series of hisses and thuds, and I finally feel the nervous excitement begin to bubble in my stomach.
As much as I complain, I do love being among the very first people to set foot on a planet’s surface. History may not remember me specifically, nor anyone else in this airlock, but we still make it every time our feet tread ground previously untrod by humanity.
We all flick the visors on our helmets shut, and the familiar rushing of air fills the room. We are cleaned of any remaining pollutants that could set the new planet on the same path as Earth, and the pressure is slowly equalised. Then the air vents seal themselves, and we are plunged into silence once more.
The console emits a series of monotonous, unexciting beeps, and the Captain presses a single button. The planet-side airlock door slides smoothly open, and the room is slowly filled with blinding sunlight. A cold breeze rushes in, making an odd contrast with the warming sunlight that beams down on us from the clear sky. Instinctively, we all raise our hands to our visors to shield our eyes from the assault of natural light that’s far too bright after the dimness of the ship.
Larkon had remained in the shadows to one side of the doorway, and is now peering out into the slice of outside world that is visible from his position. “It looks clear. Scouts, move out.”
We are all Scouts – the science boffins will remain in the ship until the planet’s safety level has been ascertained – so we all march through the doors and down the ramp, and step out onto… My towel. Or at least, the Earth that it depicts. The Earth I remember from my childhood. Surely it must be? No planet this similar can exist. The probability of such a thing existing is so inconceivably small that it might as well be considered impossible. But here it is, not in faded fibres but full-technicolour 3D.
I am standing on the same green grass under the same blue sky, basking in the rays of the same autumn sun that I saw every year but the last ten during my forty-four years on Earth. I bend and extend my knees and feel the same moist, springy earth beneath my feet. I can feel the pressure of the wind on my suit, and I ache to feel it ruffle my hair and stroke my skin.
We have landed in a valley surrounded by mountains on every side by one, where instead there is a long line of low hills that block our view of the horizon. A great waterfall cascades down the grey and brown rock to the east, then winds its way slowly through a meadow of beautifully unkempt grass and wildflowers in soft pastel shades until it tips itself over the hills to the west.
We are on the south side of the river, and far to the north a great forest of evergreen pines slowly sweeps its way up the mountainside until the bristling treetops tickle the snow-capped peaks. Despite how clear the day is, fluffy little clouds drift serenely through the treetops and scud gently along the mountainside. I wish I’d thought to check our elevation before we left the ship, and ask the AI why it chose to land us so high up.
The screech of some bird of prey reaches my ears, and when I focus on listening I realise that I can hear all the many and varied calls of nature. They aren’t identical to Earth, though. This fabric of sound is definitely woven from different threads, but the overall pattern is the same: joyful, peaceful, and calming.
From the high-pitched singsong of birds to the chirping of crickets, everything is as I remember from when camping trips and nature walks had been safe. I can even hear the rush of the waterfall and river. The smells of the wilderness finally penetrate my space-age suit and mingle with the sounds, making it feel as if my helmet is filling up with memories. I hadn’t realised how much I had missed it all even when I was back on Earth, let alone during my journeys through space.
The crew is looking around in silence. After all the weird and wild and wonderful things we have seen on our journeys, nobody can quite believe their eyes. On other planets we have found landscapes in strange psychedelic colours, extraordinary evolutions that even the most imaginative of us could not conceive, and panaceas to cure all ills, but nothing can compare to the riches we have discovered today: a fresh start. A clean slate. Hope.
I snort at how corny that sounded, and it breaks the spell.
Karn is standing to my right, chewing his lip as he looks around nervously. I take his hand and squeeze it, giving him a reassuring smile. I can’t speak because everyone will hear it through their audio feeds, but he’ll know I’m telling him that it’ll be okay.
Larkon’s voice suddenly bursts into our helmets, shattering the awe-filled serenity of the moment and causing us all to jump.
“Stop gawping! Haven’t you ever seen a fucking field before? Let’s get moving. Delta Formation, my lead, Flit rear. Move out.”
I consider mentioning the fact that not everyone was as ancient as him, and several of the younger recruits probably couldn’t remember seeing any large expanse of grass before, but decide that I’d rather not have burst eardrums and a well-kicked arse for the remainder of the expedition. So instead I just smirk to myself and make my way to the rear of the formation.
We walk in silence, unwilling to disturb the gentle peace of the valley. The ground becomes softer as we near the river, and the height of the grass creeps up and up until the long slender blades sway freely in the breeze and fluffy seed heads toss their bounties into the air as they are disturbed by our passage.
When we reach the riverbank we cannot help but stop and stare at the fresh, cool water that has traveled mere minutes from its source. Water that has come not from a fountain or a tap, but from the rock itself. We gaze mesmerised at the shadowy shapes of large fish that skulk around on the rocky riverbed, and at the little skittish ones that dart around just beneath the rippling surface. I wonder what truly fresh fish tastes like, and decide that it’s probably moist and delicious.
Karn looks happier here. His shoulders seem less tense, his head is held higher, and he seems to look around with curiosity rather than caution. Maybe he thinks that any super-intelligent aliens would have either massacred us all or approached us with false expressions of peace by now, and has therefore assumed that we are safe. He’s never been much of a tactician – the rest of us would assume that the aliens were waiting until we entered the narrow passage carved through the mountains by the river’s exit, giving them the high ground and us nowhere to run. But he’s a hotshot with a rifle, so we keep him around.
Whatever’s improved his mood, I’m glad of it. I doubt there’s anything here worth worrying about, but if by some stroke of bad luck we do come across something intent upon wiping us off the face of the planet at least Karn and I will have been able to share some last laughs together first.
That won’t happen though. If this really is a planet almost identical to Earth then the most threatening life-form would be humans. If humans do exist here then, judging by the fact that this vast swathe of untouched nature still exists, they clearly haven’t reached the same level of technological advancement that Earth humans had reached well over a thousand years ago. For all we know they could still be bashing rocks together in a cave, or using swords or simple bullets. Nothing compared to the tech we’re packing.
Larkon has obviously decided that we’ve spent enough time staring into the water like simpletons, and has lead off once more. I’m surprised he gave us any time to stare at all. Perhaps even his hard, bitter heart has been softened by all of this natural beauty.
Eventually we reach the point where the river slices its way through the rocky hillside like a knife. There is no more riverbank here, so if we were to keep following the river we would be forced to try and walk along the steep hillside perpendicular to its gradient. After a few false starts that involve Hern and Pocken slipping and sliding repeatedly on the mud and scree that litters our path, we decide that the hill gradient is low enough that scrambling up and over a low point is our best option.
I’m puffing hard as we near the peak. The shine of a natural, tech-free environment is swiftly wearing off. I miss travelators and portals and Personal Flight Devices in particular right now, and as lovely as it was to see the sun again I had forgotten just how bloody hot the thing could get. I’m beginning to wonder why we ever wanted to leave the comforts of Earth, even with its darkness, until I crest the hill and a harsh reminder hits me like a punch in the gut.
Sprawled out before us in all its shame, marring the magnificent countryside like a cancer, is the complete and utter destruction that only humans can bring.
Nothing moves, and no noise reaches our ears. No more chirping crickets, no more chattering birds, only dead silence. There is no sign of the pastel pastures we left just behind us other than far away at the horizon, where a thin line of lush greenery is masked by the soft whiteness of distance that hangs over it like a curtain, as if shielding it from the horror before us.
The desolation that used to be countryside stretches out before us, dotted regularly with huge craters and patches of land charred black with fire. Dark splotches of sickness snake their tendrils over the earth from a central mass of death, enveloping almost everything in sight. Anywhere those tendrils go and anything they touch or even approach is dead and dark, and looks like nothing I have ever seen before. It’s as if the very essence of hell has seeped up through the ground and smothered the city in its oily blackness.
Even the river that is a crystal-clear blue beside us turns a sickly shade of brown as it cuts a slick, smooth line through the chaotic carnage. Once-great buildings have been levelled, reduced to jagged and broken walls jutting upwards like shards of shattered pottery cast down from the sky, surrounded by rubble. And amongst it all, spread all over every foot of the land, something is scattered.
I push a button on the side of my helmet, and my vision zooms in on some twisted black husk. It takes me a moment, but realisation eventually dawns as I recognise the shape of a hand, twisted like a claw. A foot pointing in the wrong direction. A charred, featureless head and a gaping mouth stretched wide in a silent scream.
I feel my heart thudding in my throat. I scan the scene and see figures cowering in corners, their arms fused to their skulls where they covered their heads in fear. I see figures hanging from ropes by their necks; whether by their choice or not I can’t tell, and probably don’t want to know. I see corpses piled up against building exits that have been barred and chained shut. I see more violence, more callous murder in this place than I have ever seen in my lifetime as a soldier.
“Holy hell” Karn breaths in shock. I can only agree.
It takes a while for us all to break out of our stupor. No matter how much you might wish to, it’s impossible to take your eyes off such a scene. It isn’t just the complete and total destruction before us that has put us into shock, even when you consider the juxtaposition between this scene and the beauty we initially found when we landed. It is also the fact that we have travelled so far and left everything behind to see it. It is also the fact that we may have merely traded one hell for another. It is also the loss of our last shred of hope.
My audio feed crackles as Larkon addresses us all. “Snap out of it. Let’s go.” The words are familiar, but even our hard-hearted Captain cannot keep the shock and edge of despair from his voice.
We are forced to tear our eyes from the scene before us and watch our footing as we begin our descent. I feel numb. It’s a while before coherent thought can form itself in my mind.
How can this be? I think to myself as I watch stones skitter down the hillside around me as I descend. How can we have travelled so far and found such a perfect place, only to find that it humans have already evolved here, apparently to the extent that they have begun wiping each other out with who knows what?
I risk a glance up at the ruined city before us; it looks no better halfway down the hillside, and I shudder to think what we’ll find when we reach its outskirts. I will not risk looking at Karn though, because I know what will be written all over his face.
Larkon stops the bottom of the hill and turns to face us, looking us over with cold, hard eyes. “I know this is rough, but we have to get moving. If there is still danger here, we need to find it and eliminate it or retreat as soon as possible. Whether these… remains here are human or not, keep these things in mind: they probably have lower tech than us so any enemies should be an easy fight, and it’s possible that they have wiped themselves out and we can move in and pick up the pieces of this planet.”
He stopped and looked over his shoulder at the ruined city. “Or we can at least avoid the pieces that they have broken, and use this planet to regroup until we can maybe find another. This is not a futile or wasted mission. We have a job to do, and we’re damn well going to do it. Let’s move.”
We traipse after him, our heavy boots dragging on the sickly grass that edges the city. My heart is hammering against my ribcage as we step onto the blackened land. Despite the confidence I have in my suit, I’m still half expecting to pass out choking on some toxic unknown fume. As soldiers we have witnessed a great deal of humanity’s depravity, but it has been a long time in human history since an entire city was wiped out so completely and so effectively. Who knows what they used.
It takes a long time to sweep the first few blocks of the city. Some of the buildings are hard to access, with collapsed or blocked doorways, but we must ascertain the safety of every single one. Everyone is on edge, and the stress of trying to spot threats without looking too hard at the death around us is taking its toll. But eventually, we get the all-clear.
We find a building with one floor’s worth of wall still standing and a relatively clear floor, and decide to use it as a base for the night. Most of those Larkon assigns to guard duty stand reluctantly at the doors and windows, the others perch on what little remains of the second floor, and the rest of us take the time to rest.
Nobody speaks. What is there to say? When night falls the guard changes, and the rest of us bed down. Nobody sleeps.
Dawn breaks and we begin to break camp. Jerro, our medic, hands out the sustenance shots, and we all inject the liquid into the tubes that connect to our bloodstream. In silence we move out to explore the rest of the ruined city.
This continues for days. We wander through a museum of torture and destruction, trying to look and yet not look at the horror around us. No matter how much I try not to think of it, I think of Earth, and I know others do so too. It will have died by now, I am sure of it. Did anyone else make it out, when they realised they had no choice but to evacuate? Where would they have gone, if this, the nearest habitable planet, was over a thousand years away? Are we the last of our kind?
One day bleeds into the next as we traipse through the smog of death that hangs over this place, feeling that we leave more of ourselves behind with every step. Eventually the crushing weight of it all numbs us, and we walk around like ghosts. Unthinking, unfeeling, mere whispers of what we once were.
That is, until we come to one of the last blocks in the city. The countryside is visible beyond the charred and blackened outskirts, and the tiniest spark of hope flickers to life in my chest. This is just one city. The stark difference between where we landed and this place was so overwhelming that we were taken in by it, and never stopped to consider the other possibilities. Who knows what the rest of this world holds? Maybe this was a necessary evil, and these people deserved to be wiped out? In the back of my mind I know that I’m scrambling for excuses and answers that don’t lead to complete despair, but it’s the only way I can go on, so I pretend that I believe myself.
Here, in the corner of a large courtyard at the rear of what once must have been a magnificent building, stands a door. It is a simple door made of what looks like very thick metal, set in one wall of a very small room that can only be two paces wide by five paces long. The bricks that make up the walls of this room are bulky and grey, blackened and charred in many places. A scorched humanoid husk leans against one of the side walls, its knees pulled up against its chest and its arms folded tight over its head. We all try not to look at it.
Sim gets out his gear. He holds a device up against the door and places his ear against it. After a minute or so, he moves to one of the walls without a corpse leaning against it and repeats the action. The device goes back into the crate.
Another device is pulled out and pressed against the wall. This time a screen flickers into life, and shows us an empty room. Empty except for a trap door.
It takes a while to break through the thick metal door, but eventually our laser tech prevails. The trapdoor proved to be even more difficult to break through, with locks in several areas that require melting, but that too gives way. Larkon lifts it open and we all stare down into pitch darkness as a gust of stale air blows over us.
It was a narrow stairwell, only just wide enough for two people. What little of the walls we can see appears to be clean. No charring, no blood. Could this be a shelter? Could people have survived? The spark of hope begins to flame, and I allow myself to actually believe in it.
Larkon points at Pocken and Yirra, then points either side of the first doorway, commanding them to stand guard. He clicks on his headlight and steps down into the darkness. Half eager and half reluctant, the rest of us slowly follow suit.
Our footsteps echo eerily as we step carefully down the metal staircase into total silence. The way the sound bounces down the deep passageway and back up makes it sound like a group of people are ascending to meet us. The hairs on the back of my neck are permanently raised, and my eyes are straining wide to see as far as possible down into the abyss.
We round a corner and reach another door, which we quickly break through. We walk through the door and the little square of daylight above us vanishes, plunging us into total darkness on all sides, other than the thin lines of light provided by our headlights.
I feel trapped, like a huge weight is bearing down on me. My breathing rasps shallow and haggard in my ears. It occurs to me that this shelter might not be occupied by this city’s citizens, but instead those who came to kill them. My pulse and breathing quickens.
A red dot appears ahead. It slowly grows larger and larger as we descend the final stretch of stairwell and alight upon a flat surface. I see now that it is a light, one single solitary light that announces the presence of yet another thick metal door.
Larkon turns to face us and motions for us to ready weapons. I heft my rifle in my arms, feeling its reassuring weight in my arms and pressed against my body.
He pounds a meaty fist on the door. There is no reply.
We break out the laser tech once more and burn our way through that final barrier between us and our fate. I am giddy with a mix of fear and excitement that makes me feel sick, and my head is so light it feels like it could just float away back up the stairs and into the sky.
The door swings open slowly with a squeal that is deafening after the heavy silence.
“Oh God no” Karn breathes, the first words any of us have spoken to one another in days. They are the heralds of hope’s death, and carry with them a sense of unimaginable loss. A sense of finality. A sense of desperation turned to morbid resignation. Positioned as I am at the rear I cannot see what lies beyond the doorway, but with those three words I already know all that I need to.
Slowly we file into the large, brightly lit room. The only sound is the gentle humming of the fluorescent lamps that are dotted along the low ceiling. The floor here is carpeted thickly, and the walls are painted a calming shade of blue with ornate cornicing where they meet the white ceiling. In the centre of one wall hangs a screen of some kind, whilst the other walls are dotted with artwork. One painting shows the city as it was: bright, beautiful, the very definitely of graceful modernity with its smooth faces and sweeping curves. Next to it hangs a replica, picked out in wobbly red crayon.
In one corner there is a kitchen area, sparkling like new. Pots and pans are stacked neatly to one side. Beside the kitchen a door hangs open, revealing a room that clearly used to hold chilled food but is now empty but for the bare shelves that line its walls like a ribcage. Cupboards dotted here and there on walls of the main room also hang open, revealing their empty innards.
In the centre of the room lies a huge pile of mattresses, cushions and blankets in a riot of colours and patterns, made from all sorts of fabrics from simple cotton to fine silk. And in this bedding area lie most of the bodies. They are not charred or burned or twisted in a mockery of the human form, just skin and bone with clothes hanging off them in rags. Scrawny and desiccated though they are, as if someone siphoned all water and flesh from their forms, this time we can tell that they are most definitely human.
Many of them are huddled together in pairs or groups. Two adults lie curled up around a baby, holding hands above its tiny head. Two forms lie with their arms and legs entwined, foreheads resting together. A young girl clasps a child to her chest, the child’s head nestling into her grey, withered neck. One woman is curled up alone, and her small frame and black hair looking a little too much like mine.
I cannot stand to look at any more of the bodies, to hear the echoes of their tragic stories in my mind. No matter where I turn I can still see them, leaning against walls or curled up up in the corner. There is even one seated at a computer terminal to one side of the doorway through which we entered.
Larkon spies the terminal and heads over to it. As he tries to move the chair and its deceased occupant, the body begins to fall. As the shriveled skin and flesh flakes and begins to crumble the body collapses under its own weight, falling as dust on the lushly carpeted floor.
I hear Karn and a few others retch but I pretend not to, as I’m struggling to cover my own revulsion. Larkon grimaces and hits a button on the console, causing it to flicker to life. There is some sort of text on the screen which he begins to read as the rest of us examine the room further.
The large screen on the far wall flickers into life and shows us a moving birds-eye-view of the ruined city. I don’t want to look at it, so I head to the cold storage room as quickly as possible and lean against the inside wall, sucking in deep breaths to try and settle my stomach. I squeeze my eyes tight to try and block out the world. It doesn’t work.
The curse blares through my earpiece and startles my heart to pounding. I run back into the main room in time to see Larkon march away from the console towards the huge metal door to the stairwell, which he thumps hard with his fist as he passes. His boots stamp up the stairs, up and up, until we can no longer hear them.
We all look around at each other. I clear my throat. “I’ll look.” I walk over to the screen and begin to read aloud.
We have done it again. We have destroyed ourselves. We thought that we could do it right this time, as we were going into this knowing what to expect. We could plan our lives, not just evolve. Keep those separate who needed or wanted to be separate. Divide the lands equally to ensure true equality. It would be a paradise we built for ourselves, and we would take care of it this time.
I do not know how it came to this. Maybe in thousands of years, when some other intelligent life form comes across this planet, they will follow the trail. They will return to the broken world we left behind, they will understand how this all happened. Here is all I can say in my short time to help you, whoever you are.
We poisoned our home planet. We took from it and gave not back, we polluted it with war and with our own greed and arrogance, and it was dying. We searched and we searched for somewhere else but could find nothing. We sent out expedition after expedition full of deep-sleepers but none ever returned. We could only conclude that no habitable planets existed in our proximity, and we resigned ourselves to death.
But then we finally did it. We made the breakthrough that we had waiting centuries for. Faster Than Light Travel. It was a race against the clock to develop the ships to carry us away from a planet on the brink of death, and we made it. Oh how wondrous it was to jump through the stars, to travel further than we ever imagined we could travel in a hundred lifetimes let alone one!
We set off in the direction of the last expedition ship and travelled in leaps and bounds until, soon enough, we detected a habitable planet. When we landed it was like a dream. It was as if we hadn’t travelled through space but through time instead, and landed on our planet as it had been before we destroyed it. It was so beautiful, so peaceful, and so full of potential.
We settled, and for a time it was as if we truly had reached Nirvana. We worked the land as our most ancient ancestors had – with respect, to yield healthy crops and live healthy lives – but retained our superior architecture and healthcare and social policy. It was a blissful life full of the goodness of an ancient time combined with the prosperity afforded to us by our superior modern knowledge and understanding.
But the problems that have always plagued humanity plagued us still. We fought, and although many of us resolved our differences peacefully, many of us did not. We had shared our technology in the hope to prevent reliving previous wars over resources and power, but it was not enough. Our technologies were turned against us and we in turn fought back against our enemies until the only things left were robots fighting robots, following commands left by a dead race of men.
We know this because we survived down here for a time, deep beneath the surface. I and all other mayors of all other cities have shelters such as these, and they are all interlinked. I watched my citizens die, burned and disintegrated and squashed like flies, all in real time. Then the feeds from all over the planet came to our screens and we watched the same sick tableau, again and again.
I then watched my fellow leaders die, starving to death or taking their own lives, all in real time. All the while my loved ones and I sat down here safely, but with those visions of our future looming over us like a curse. Those others made the mistake of taking in as many people as possible and their food ran out, but I only took in my family. Though maybe it was not a mistake for them to do what they did, for they have been spared the worst of this torment, watching our new home tear itself to pieces.
Our food ran out three days ago, and the stealth cameras show that there is no hope of us leaving here whilst the drones and automatons roam the outside world. My family took the pills and I watched them slip away one by one. Now it is my turn.
So please, whoever you are, go back to our homeland and see what we wrought there. Understand and follow our journey so that you may not repeat it. We destroyed Earth and then we destroyed Gaia. Please do not make the same mistakes. Please remember us, the last humans, the last of our kind.
There’s nothing for anyone to say after that. We switch off the lights and close the door to humanity’s graveyard, then traipse back up the stairs, feeling hollow to our very cores.
I can hear several people crying through my headset, and I recognise one as Karn. All this way, all this way for nothing. Nothing but death and destruction and extinction. The loneliness is crushing, crippling in its absoluteness and its certainty. I can feel panic begin to wrap its icy fingers around my heart and my breath comes in short, shallow bursts. My own face is wet, and I find myself wondering if I will fill my helmet with tears and escape to the blissful numbness of death.
Larkon is nowhere to be seen when we exit the dark stairwell into the harsh daylight. Yirra is pacing rapidly, whilst Pocken is sitting on the floor leaning against the wall of the shelter entrance, a living mirror to the charred husk on the other side. I guess Larkon told them all they needed to know about what was inside the shelter.
Nobody seems to want to take charge.
“What do we do?” Karn whispers.
“I don’t know” I whisper back, the very act of speaking seeming somehow crass and insulting amongst so much death.
“What’s the point in doing anything?” Yirra asks. “We may as well go see if this mayor has any more of his pills left, or find this robotic army and go for suicide-by-drone.”
“Maybe some got away from Gaia, like they got away from Earth?” Karn asks quietly, his eyes shining with a tiny glimmer of hope. I am loathe to take that away from him, but I must.
“The Mayor seemed certain. You know as well as I do that if military AI is programmed to do something like this” – I gesture at our surroundings – “then it will leave no survivors. They only survived because they had that shelter, and it was the only one here. Don’t forget that our ship also scanned for human life and found nothing. We need to accept it: we and any other deep sleepers that have survived are the last of mankind, and we are scattered throughout the universe. We are ants crawling across the four corners of the earth, trying to find both each other and the one blade of grass that we can call home. Humanity is essentially extinct.”
A loud bang echoed throughout the courtyard. We all spun around to see the Pocken’s limp form slumped against the wall, bright red blood leaking from inside his shattered helmet, his pistol clasped loosely in his hand.
Hern and Farra whip out their own pistols. “No!” I shout, lunging towards them. I manage to knock Farra’s arm upwards and her shot fires harmlessly into the sky, but I am too late for Hern. He collapses to the ground.
“Stop this madness!” I shout as the others begin to panic. “Stop it right now! What is the sense in killing yourself?”
“What’s the sense in living?” Harra demands.
“We have people, we have men and women, some of us are strong and others are smart, we can rebuild.” I flounder for some scrap of positivity, some meagre thing that we can cling to.
“I’m not sure I want to.” Karn looks at me with dead eyes.
“We could explore further” Sim suggests. “See if this really is all that is left. And if we are killed by military AI then, oh well.” He shrugs his immense shoulders. “Not really lost much, have we.”
“We’ve lost the chance to revive the human race. That’s what we’ve lost. We could find their FTL drives, jump in the direction that EX3 went, see if we can find them. Please” I beg, “please just think of what you’re giving up. Any hope of mankind’s survival depends on us.”
“I meant what I said, Flit. I’m not sure I want mankind to survive. I don’t think we deserve to survive.” Karn looks around himself and sighs.
“Don’t be so selfish, so cowardly!” I snap at him, my temper flaring with my fear and desperation. “It’s not about what you think. Species don’t choose to survive, they just survive! They just survive, they just live” I hear my voice crack up, and somewhere distantly I realise how hysterical I sound.
Karn glares at me. “Selfish? Cowardly? How is it selfish and cowardly to remove a cancer? The selfish thing is leaving the cancer to eat away at whatever it pleases just because it survives the first attempt to wipe it out. You can choose that if you want, Flit. But I know what I’m choosing. Anyone who is choosing my way, come with me. We’ll see if there are any more of those pills. And if there aren’t, well, I’m sure we’ll find a way.” He turns away and starts towards the doorway.
“No Karn, please, stop.” I run after him and grasp at his sleeve, but he shakes me off. “Please don’t do this. Please come with me.”
Karn spins round angrily to face me. “No, Flit, I won’t. You were so convinced that we wouldn’t find anything, so happy to make jokes, that you never considered what you would do if you were wrong. Well I did. I never foresaw this, not in any of my worst nightmares, and that tells me that humanity is even worse than the lowest expectations that I ever had of it.
“You’re on autopilot, you’re following your biological drive to survive. But not me. No. When I look at this all I can think is that maybe you were right, maybe in the grand scheme of the universe we really are as dumb as cattle, and maybe the only thing we are good for is to nourish some other race who doesn’t go around fucking killing each other for no good fucking reason!” He is shouting now, tears streaming down his face. “So no, Flit, I will not stop, I will not come with you. I am removing myself from the universe’s gene pool, and I hope it’ll be all the purer for it!”
I stand in stunned silence and watch my best friend disappear into darkness. My impulses scream at me to go! Go after him! Make him see sense! But my feet won’t move, and my brain knows that he has made his choice. I respect him too much to try and take that away from him.
Yirra, Harra and a few others follow him. Nobody says goodbye.
“Is anyone coming with me to search the rest of this hellhole?” Sim asks.
“Wait, before you decide, let’s go back to the ship” I suggest. “Anyone who wants to search can take the jet and some supplies.”
Everyone nods, and we set off through the city towards the deceptively beautiful landscape in which we landed.
The docking hatch hisses shut behind me and I hear the roar of the jet’s engines starting up. Sim has taken around half of the members of EX7 that remained on his foolish, futile trip. On the way back to the ship we saw the drones crest the hills in the distance and make their way towards the city, obviously on some sort of patrol. We saw what looked like bombers, as well as ships that looked to be holding ranks upon ranks of automatons in their grasp, reading to mobilise them the second they descended to the ground. My fellow scouts and the scientists who chose to go with them do not stand a chance.
Personally I see it as nothing more than a weak cover for suicide, done by people too cowardly to do the deed outright. I try not to think too hard about the fact that Sim would probably say the same thing about my chosen course.
I don’t wait to see the jet leave. Instead, I head back to the bridge to reactivate the autopilot in preparation for my journey… to where? I haven’t decided yet. The remaining crew, who total around fifty, seem to trust in my leadership. More likely is that they just don’t care what we do, perhaps just want to get the fuck away from this hellish planet and its stench of death, but I’m trying to stay positive. Which is becoming increasingly difficult.
I sit in the commander’s huge leather chair and activate the autopilot unit, which flickers into life on the oversized screen. “LOCATION?” it asks me, and the entire universe stretches before me. It feels more like it opens up inside me, so vast is the hollowness at my core. My fingers hover over the keyboard. I’m paralysed by choice. A choice I never wanted to make, one that no human should ever have had to make. I rest my hands back on the desk again.
I sit in that chair for almost the whole day, staring into space. Yirra’s words keep echoing in my head: what’s the point? The look in Karn’s eyes haunt me. He is surely dead by now. Dead like the rest of them, millions upon millions of my kin. Now he’s slowly withering to dust that will disintegrate into nothingness at the slightest breeze, as if he and the rest of humanity never existed.
Night falls and the screen still blinks “LOCATION?” at me.
“Home” I write.
“LOCATION NOT RECOGNISED.”
I sigh and reactivate the system’s previous instructions, because why not? There’s no point going back to Earth, and there’s no point trying to meet up with any other expeditions. The ship will head off in any random direction, seeking corners of the universe that could sustain life and changing direction as needed.
My boots thud down the cold, empty hallways as I make my way to the DS Room. Everyone else is already settled in their Deep Sleep Pods, their pale faces taught in expressions of stressful sadness and despair. I hope it’s not possible to dream in deep sleep.
I clamber into my own pod, close the door, and come face to face with my own reflection. When I first woke up I could barely see the difference between the self that stepped into the pod on Earth and the self that woke up a thousand years later. Now, despite the fact that mere days have passed, it’s as if I look upon a stranger. I don’t recognise this frown, nor the way my mouth turns down at the corners, nor the dead eyes that seem to peer into my soul.
The DS Unit hisses into action and I prepare to sleep. I reach up to the digital clock above the Pod window and press the little red button.
1 SECOND. 2 SECONDS. 3 SECONDS.
I watch the numbers blink by. Last time I had no idea how many years would pass before I next opened my eyes. This time I know I could be two thousand years old when I wake up.
Karn was right about everything, and I called him a selfish coward. Sim too. To choose a quick death on your own terms is brave, and to choose to explore every option before you die is brave. Maybe Sim did find survivors, maybe they could escape on an FTL ship and rebuild with more than just one shipful of scouts and scientists. To choose to move on and find a new home would be brave, but that is not what I have chosen.
In the end, I am the biggest coward. Because I could not bare to admit the truth, to confront it head-on. Because I chose hide from it in deep sleep, never accepting humanity’s fate yet never truly rejecting it. Because I know we will never find any other humans or another home in the inconceivable expanse of the universe. Because I have condemned us all to float through space in eternal stasis, in frozen solitude. Because I hope I never wake up.