I keep my eyes on the horizon. There'll soon be little else left. I curl my toes and dig them deep into the dry soil and brittle grass around me. I wish I had claws, talons, roots - anything to keep me grounded. But I don't and it's too late.
Everything falls away. I don't know why it was a surprise to us all. This is the way life is. From the moment you are born things change, move, grow, fall away.
Childhood teeth, fancies, dreams.
Adolescent dreams, longings, convictions.
Adult conviction, expectation, entitlement.
"Nothing ever ends," or so a wise blue man once told me. I thought I believed that. I really did believe. Yet here I am observing what strongly appears to be a definitive end. The places I knew, the faces I knew, the scents I knew, even the atoms I knew. Time tears it all apart.
Above the horizon is a shimmering cascade of venting gases, below it a violent tumult of molten rock. The very rock we'd wish to live on, boiling. The air we'd wished to breathe, pouring itself into oblivion. All that remains is the horizon. A gentle curve. I should look away. I wiggle my toes in the dirt and the grass. I should go back inside. There are measurements I'm meant to be taking, readings to be logged, apparatus to be maintained, data to analyse. But I just want to watch.
Ozone plumes out through the ionosphere. Fouetté after fouetté after fouetté after... you get the picture. I wiggle my toes, clasp my hands tighter around the cooling coffee in my chipped ‘World's Best Mum’ mug. Why am I here, alone, watching this? How am I the last of us? I'm not scientist. I was a dancer, I was a mother. We were spread so thin and so far amongst the stars. A team to this system, a team to that system. Hundreds of thousands of teams, hundreds of millions of planets. All we'd needed was the one and we all know how that turned out. Things weren't supposed to be like this. Everything was all laid out for us (find a new planet > take care of it this time) and for myself (dance > dance well).
Alison's feet pad softly on the dry ground behind me, followed by the warmth of her hands around my waist and her head on my shoulder.
"Mum, come back inside. You've been out here for ages. Your feet, they're blue with cold!" I peer down at my feet then up at my daughter, giving her a guilty smile. She rolls her eyes. "I've laid out some breakfast,” she says and tugs at my elbow, "and put on some fresh coffee for you. Come onnnnnn."
"Alright, alright," I relent, take a deep breath, turn away from the writhing mass of gases and return to the entrance. I scan my access chit and wait as the exterior door hisses and thunks into place behind me. I wait for the locks to cycle and the interior door to open. I walk through the empty corridors. Lights, bleeping, pipes, squeak of rubber shoes. Allison is already sat at the table in the small mess. Mouthful, smiling through bulging hamster cheeks. Comfortable in her seat. Several plates and bowls arrayed before her. I lower myself into the seat opposite. I should go attend to things. I'm no scientist but I have duties. I file and organise the data generated by all the others. That was generated by the others. Data preservation is important, or so they would tell me, as important as anything else. The data we capture must be well kept, clearly formatted, deeply searchable, widely accessible.
Well, hmph. Maybe it was. It didn't make me feel important though. Even after a decade of studying and a swathe of accreditations and letters after my name. They were here to save the human species, I was here to tidy up behind them and ensure their wonderful discoveries and pronouncements were saved for posterity. And now I'm keeping it organised for whom? It's only me here. No one is coming. No one will find us. We are too few. The universe has proven itself too big and too hostile.
It's as though the universe is our landlord and our rent is way past due. The landlord came to inspect its property, to see how its tenants had handled their responsibilities only to find that those tenants, those trusted few, had multiplied voraciously, invited in all their friends, friends’ friends, cousins, aunts, and torn the place apart. Blocked up the plumbing and let the effluence spill out into the house, covering the floors, filling the cellar, overflowing and running out into the street. Smashed the windows, torn open the walls. The landlord is understandably aghast and demands recompense, repairs, adjustment of attitude. The tenants, and entourage, merely laugh as they continue to piss up the walls, pick tiles from the roof and throw them at the sun. Disgruntled the landlord informs his associates and ensures they all know: humans are not to be trusted. Enter into no pact with them. Sign no contract.
We wander the wide cold wilderness.
Planet after planet turns us away.
We spread further, thinner.
And everywhere the universe spurns us.
Allison drops some muesli into a bowl, crumbles on some chalky reconstituted carbohydrate stuff, masquerading (poorly) as dried berries, some soy milk and slides the bowl noisily across the table to me.
"Eat, or I'll beat you up. I don't care if you're my mother."
I push the cereals around, setting oats and seeds to eddy and whorl, and eventually take a few spoonfuls. The carb chalk gets suck in my back teeth. I look up and Allison is gone. I push the bowl away and wiggle my toes. Plastic squeal instead of dry dirt, rustle of grass. I shudder, stand and retrace my steps back to the observation platform entrance. The interior door hisses and thunks open before me. I step in and wait for the locks to cycle. The exterior door opens. I focus on the horizon.
Practice music drifts through the quiet corridors. One two, one two, one two, one two. A polka. Images come unbidden.
Allison stood at our barre, her ever warm face even more so; flushed after a round of exercises.
Allison boarding the shuttle to her own survey, waving to me as the boarding ramp folds away and the doors close.
Allison's pointe shoes thrown into a box, our barre being removed along with everything else of us in the house, our house, being cleansed of us, every trace of us fading into the shadow of a peacock.
Allison reduced to a cluster of data, a unique identification number, a survey number and a status number: 81986, SR-X5-388, 0-0.
All lost in a feed of endless such numbers.
I forget how long I've been on survey now. What good is counting the days when there will be no end. Either we find a habitable planet or we keep searching.
I am silver of hair. The only mark of time I can't avoid. I suppose that and the aches in my joints, oh, and the lethargy of my mind I struggle to shake free of each morning. I'm glad of my silver though. The others of my group (we now number eleven in total) seem set on fading to grey. The men in particular. As if they want to merge with their suits. Grey hair, grey pallor, grey demeanour.
But I am silver.
The intercom chirps and flashes. I ignore it. The low blue light from its display illuminating my darkened room. It flashes again. I get glimpses of all the things I sit here in the dark to avoid. Memories, mementos, knick knacks. Things I can neither bring myself to look at nor throw away. The room darkens again and, finally, it comes: a knock at the door.
If I wasn't certain of my visitors before, I am now. No one knocks these days. They don't wait for me to let them in. The door bleeps, announcing an override and slides open. Harsh light folds in from the corridor, casting a trio of long shadows. One of them clacks at a panel on the wall and my lights slowly hum into action. The shadows resolve into two men and a peacock. Each in ENSC uniform. The men are laden, one with a stack of flat packed boxes, the other with a thick grey duffel bag. The peacock labours only under a glittering array of regalia on his shoulder.
They do not introduce themselves. The men immediately start to go through my things. Tossing anything of any perceivable recyclable value into boxes, everything else goes straight into the waste. The peacock comes over and starts blathering at me. It's barely been a standard month since Allison left. I sit and watch. I barely hear the words read out to me, but I know them. Everyone does.
Too engrossed in his own self importance, the peacock does not notice my lack of attention. He drops the grey bag at my feet. Rummages in his pocket and produces a survey assignment chit which he waves in my face.
I know what's inside that bag. Standard issue Survey gear. Grey boots, grey jacket, grey grey grey. The last set of clothing I will ever put on. Identical to what Allison was wearing when she left.
I sigh, not acknowledging at any of them. Interlopers in my misery. I snatch the assignment chit out of the peacocks waiting hand, pick up the duffel and walk out. I don't look back. That life is done.
We are to begin, what the ship tells me, is our 50th survey.
I bid for it. The others were greatly surprised. I've done little actively these past decades but spurn their advice, friendships, advances. Survey destinations were assigned by proximity. The ship would throw out a list of planets graded by their likelihood of supporting our wandering species. The executive of each survey would select from the list. Each survey could mostly go where they pleased, so long as they kept crossing planets off the list. This was about the extent of our freedom. Each other facet of life was micromanaged in the extreme. Work would be done. Sanity would be preserved. Whether we wanted the one or the other.
It's been around ten years since we were in communication range with any other teams. The possibility of crossing paths is remote in the extreme but SR-X5-338 lay in a slightly more trafficked sector. We'd initially set on a extreme trajectory, our executive had favoured bold moves, with little input from his underlings. Now we had no executive. We made decisions by vote.
They voted to adjust and hope. I voted to be close to her once more.
It'd take us around 3 years to reach SR-X5-388, but the nearest alternative had been 2.7 years and what's a few months of painful existence in the face of blind, impractical, hope.
And so we went.
One day, collating data I found it buried away in an info pulse.
An info pulse. We send them out after each survey, or any major event. The ship assesses the last known locations of other survey vessels, extrapolates their most likely trajectories and sends out an encrypted transmission with all our latest findings. We never know if anyone received them and we find ourselves gifted with an arrival with exceptional scarcity. Twice it's happened in my years on this survey. Given our isolation you can imagine the excitement it caused when that first info pulse showed up on our scans. We'd been out of general communication range for 11 years. You can imagine the despondency when it appeared something had gone wrong. The info pulse was a unintelligible mess. The team spent weeks trying to decode it, repair it, translate it. In the end I deleted it. Easier to deal with the absence than the unknowing. The second info pulse was met with even greater excitement, and a healthy mistrust. The team barely acknowledged it. Left me to do what I do, file, arrange, sort, classify, index. I found nothing unusual as I sifted through the data, failures and false positives aplenty, until one final file, appended to the last packet. I almost overlooked it. I almost wish I had.
36029, SR-X5-388, 0-0
37731, SR-X5-388, 0-0
51126, SR-X5-388, 0-0
18212, SR-X5-388, 0-0
23081, SR-X5-388, 0-0
81986, SR-X5-388, 0-0
71753, SR-X5-388, 0-0
13552, SR-X5-388, 0-0
66783, SR-X5-388, 0-0
87443, SR-X5-388, 0-0
50802, SR-X5-388, 0-0
33496, SR-X5-388, 0-0
My breath left me.
81986, SR-X5-388, 0-0
Something happened on her survey. All twelve members. 0-0. Deceased. They never made it to their planet. No other details were included. That's how I found out. How I lost her again. She started to visit me about a year later. That's when I decided to bid for SR-X5-388.
Initial scans were positive. Perhaps a little too positive. The team tried in vain not to get their hopes up. I tried to care as they did.
SR-X5-388 harboured a huge variety of flora and fauna. Average temperatures around 15 °C. Nothing weird, choking or unexpected in the air: N2, O2, Ar, CO2, Ne, CH4 and so on all in preferential ranges.
As we neared SR-X5-388 the crew became agitated. The obs platform, my usual retreat, brimmed with troubled minds, pacing up and down, wearing the thin grass thinner still. All I could think was if we've already passed the furthest point Allison ever reached? Are we taking the same approach to the planet she would have? Was she once, even for a fleeting second, in the same space I am now?
I grudgingly understood the crews excitement. After year upon year spent in confined quarters (save for one, three metre square patch of rough dirt and poor grass, forever barely clinging to life), year upon year ingesting recycled air, recycled water, recycled food. Then one day the distant horizons blooms into verdant, expansive forest below a crystal clear sky. You steel yourself for the journey and go as fast as you can. The dank oppression of your surroundings distending every second into slow agony. And never mind the notion, forever chattering at the back of your mind, that maybe, just maybe, you're about to find a new home for the entire human species.
"Mum, we're almost there!" Allison shaking me awake, the tone in her voice full of barely contained excitement like on the mornings leading up to her birthdays.
The intercom chimes. I answer, audio only, while still in bed. Everyone is blathering about going down to the surface, checking suits, checking equipment. I mute my audio and haul myself from my bed, dress and toilet while the blathering crescendos.
"Come on," Allison is stood outside the bathroom, hands on hips in her standard issue ENSC greys. "A little excitement, please?"
I'm too tired for that child.
"I'll get the grumpy old lady her morning coffee, but we are going down to the surface, aren't we?"
How can we?
"Mum, come on. I didn't come all this way-"
No, you didn't. You did not come all this way. You are lost somewhere, out there, in the expanse behinds us. I'll not lose you a third time. We're staying up here.
"Fine. I'm going to the obs deck to watch then. Put your own coffee on."
Then one day it's all before you. An unbearable deluge of sensation.
Tall shimmering grasses.
Winds rustling through trees.
Call of avians overhead.
Scent of nectar.
Burble of running water.
The sheer joy of warmth of sunlight on your face.
At least, that's what the team told me. I never went down to the surface. They were all packed, suited and ready days before we were close enough. The shuttle was checked, triple checked. The whole team loaded into it anxiously hours before they'd be able to launch. I was glad to finally get my little pensive space back.
It meant so much, they all invested so much. I was not surprised when, about 6 months in, the planet started to fall apart and reject us like a transplanted organ. After that we started to reject ourselves. The team woke one morning to find our biologist gone, all her clothes neatly folded. No note, message, nor sign of her destination. Another morning I awoke to the ship announcing the shuttle had left the surface and would be docking in a hour or so. My heart jumped into my throat. I wanted them to be well. To come back. I wanted them to stay, to leave me and Allison be. I sat and tracked the shuttles approach on a display. I stared, mouth agape, as at the last moment the shuttle veered off course, hurtling out into nothingness. I tried the comm, no answer. I watched as the shuttle disappeared from sensor range. That left 6 people down on the planet. I never heard from them. I never tried to contact them (though I checked, obsessively, that the comms were functional), they never tried to contact me.
I waited and watched as their resolve faded and they tore themselves apart, as our last, best hope tore itself apart.
I find myself again out on our observation platform. I keep my eyes on the horizon. There'll soon be little else left. I curl my toes and dig them deep into the dry dirt and brittle grass around me. I wish I had claws, talons, roots... but I don't and it's too late.
Everything falls away, upwards.
The ship notices the increasing rage unfolding below and moves us higher, the whole vessel trembles as it punts us into the upper stratosphere. The horizon quivers and unfurls before me, widening and darkening. The florid dance of leeching atmospheric gases slump and expand. It's’ tight, whipping fouettés slow into graceless pirouettes, the movement unravelling and degrading with each repetition. From up here the whole violent process of a world tearing itself apart coalesces into a sweet adagio of destruction.
Feet padding softly behind me, sudden warmth as Allison’s arms wrap around my cold body.
- - - -
A piece of short fiction on the theme of chaos featured in Soul Traits #1.
A piece of short fiction on the theme of chaos featured in Soul Traits #1.