A slim woman dressed in an ankle length white dress stood alone on the beach. Her black hair tumbled over shoulders and down her back to where a thin black cord was tied at her waist. She stood and stared across the waves toward the horizon seemingly ignoring all that was around her. At the same time it was clear that she was acutely tuned into each puff of wind, and drop of water from the surf, even down to the single grains of sand bouncing along the beach. Other than the crash of surf and a light breeze there was no noise. No birds or barking dogs, or even scuttling crabs broke the desolation.
A man in a blue jumpsuit approached from down the beach. He was tall, solidly built and had wavy black hair with just a touch of grey on the sides. He carried himself with an air of authority. His steel grey eyes spoke of experience and confidence. He had landed his craft a few hundred yards along the shore and after climbing to the sand walked unsteadily toward her, as if his feet hadn’t touched dry land in a very long time. When he was within ten feet of the women he stopped. He stood for a few seconds as if not sure what to say.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Could you help me?”
She turned to look at the man, tears were running down her cheeks, but she said nothing.
“Oh,” said the man taken aback by her appearance, “I’m sorry, but you see, I’ve just gotten back and, well, where is everyone?”
“What do you mean? She replied wiping her face.
“Well,” he started. It had been many weeks since he had last talked to another person and the words felt clumsy in his mouth. “I just got back and I can’t find anyone. I’ve scanned everywhere and you’re the only person I’ve seen, and I….” the man trailed off into silence.
The woman looked at him. Though her form suggested a slim twenty something her eyes were far different. They betrayed a depth of experience and understanding of someone much older. It struck the man that her eyes belonged to someone who had seen millennia of the sadness of the world.
“So, how long were you gone?” she asked quietly.
“That’s a little hard to explain,” he said.
“You’d be surprised what I understand”
“Well, it has been 200 years since we left, but with the speeds we were going I’ve only aged one year.”
“That explains it.” she said sadly.
She turned to look at the sea again. The sun was creeping toward the horizon.
“All the changes, all the horror.” She paused for a full ten seconds and turned back to the man, “Everyone is dead.”
He stared in shock. “That can’t be. We had colonies throughout the Solar System. We were invincible. Ours was the first mission to the stars. Humanity was taking it’s place in the galaxy.” He stopped, a proud light was in his eyes. He was the leader of the first interstellar mission from Earth. He would go down in history alongside Yeager and Armstrong and Che Hsa, and the rest.
“No,” she said looking toward him with a humourless smile. “They are all gone. There’s nobody to record your accomplishment. There will be no accolades. They are all dead.” After a pause she added, “Except of course for the crew on your ship.” There was a glint of hope in her voice.
The man stepped back as if the words had struck him in the chest. He turned away from the woman and looked back along the beach to where his ship, a shuttlecraft big enough for just 5 sat cooling on the sand. How could this be. He was the latest hero of Earth. The brave conqueror of Gelise 581g. How could their be no one left to celebrate his return?
“They didn’t make it.” he finally said quietly.
“What do you mean by that.”
The man turned toward the woman. “My Crew! They Didn’t Make It!” he shouted and turned angrily toward the sea.
She walked over to where he stood on the sand and put her hands on his shoulders to comfort him. “What happened?” she asked quietly.
The man took a long time to compose himself. Then as he regained his composure he squared his shoulders turned to look at the woman and started to speak.
“There were five of us. The ship was built for speed and that’s all there was room for. We had been underway for a couple of weeks when we lost Simpson. She was in the air lock room getting one of our communications probes ready. We never figured out what happened but the airlock suddenly cycled and she was sucked out into space. At those speeds without a suit on she was dead before I even saw it happen on the monitor. “
“What do you mean?”
“You see, we were travelling so close to the speed of light that time was slowed to one thousandth of the rest of the universe. For every second that passed onboard almost seventeen minutes passed for the rest of the universe. However once Chloe fell out of the ship the drag of the interstellar gas and the galactic magnetic field slowed her and very quickly she and resumed normal time. Even if we could have found her, even if she’d had a suit on, by the time we could have slowed and turned around she would have been dead for months. All we could do was go on.”
The man lapsed into silence. The wind blowing along the beach rustled his hair.
“Who was next?”
The man sighed. “When we got to the planet we were expecting to find a civilization. You know creatures and technology, and be greeted like great explorers. That’s what the Astronomers thought anyway.”
“Well, they picked up these bursts of radio noise. Not static though. Pure sin-wave microwave pulses, only they couldn’t decipher them. They knew there was data either on them or in the sequence of the pulses but they couldn’t figure out what they were saying. Finally it was decided to send a manned probe. ‘Boots on the ground was always better than noise in the air’ was what the head of the project was fond of saying. He figured that we could land, make contact, and figure out how to communicate with them. But it didn’t work out that way.”
“They were hostile?” she asked.
“They were nonexistent.”, he said with a grim laugh staring at his feet.
“We circled the planet. It was featureless. Pole to equator to pole one short grass meadow with scattered clumps of trees. One or two kinds of little rodent like creatures and a couple kinds of birds and that was it.” the man lapsed into silence again.
He suddenly raised his head and looked around. “Birds? Why aren’t there any birds? There’s always been seagulls at the beach.” He turned to look at the woman.
“Gone.” she said grimly.
The man stood in shock.
“Is everything dead?”
“Cats? Rats? Dogs? Frogs? Cows, Bugs? They’re all gone?”
The woman looked at him with those infinitely sad eyes and almost imperceptibly nodded.
“But how? Was it a war? A plague? What could kill off everything?”
“There were wars but that wasn’t the cause. There were famines but that wasn’t the cause. There were plagues, but that wasn’t the cause,” she said anger growing in her voice.
The woman looked at him with a disgusted look on her face “I guess if you wanted to point to one thing it would be human nature.”
The man stared at her in shock.
“Oh no no no. There’s no way people did this to themselves.” he said matter of factly.
Once again she nodded eyes narrow.
“But how? Why? I don’t understand.”
“In the final analyses it was because everyone thought their little bit wouldn’t hurt.”
The man looked at her in stunned silence not comprehending.
“Here’s an example. Nearly everyone on earth agreed that killing whales was bad. But the whalers couldn’t see beyond the fact that they’d have to find a different job. Politicians defended the killing as ‘tradition’ to get votes. First Nations tribes took a few each year as part of their “cultural heritage”. They didn’t need it, they just kept doing it. Everyone had an excuse. Meeting were held, agreements and treaties were signed. They were all ignored. The boats from dugouts to factory ships kept staining the water red. They all thought ‘what’s the big deal it’s only one whale’. Well that’s how they died, one whale at a time until they were all gone.”
“All this happened because of the whales?” he asked.
She looked at him with disgust. “Don’t be stupid, of course not.” she said sharply. “The whales were just one of the more obvious things in a long line stupidity. They did the same thing with the trees. They kept cutting and cutting. Loggers didn’t want to lose their jobs. The forests were ‘protected’ but as long as their was money to be made someone was willing to go in and cut illegally. As long as the right payoffs were made officials were willing to look the other way. Everyone thought ‘what’s one more tree’. Well eventually the trees were gone. The forests that had kept people alive for thousands of years were gone and shortly afterwards the people started to die. It was the same with the fish, and the birds, and farmland, and rhinoceros, and sea turtles, and on and on.”
They were silent for a long time. By unspoken agreement they began to walk down the beach. Not fast, more of a stroll. It was not like they were going anywhere. It’s not like there was anywhere to go. They walked in silence for a long time. Then the man spoke.
“It was the trees that did in Kemp.”
“The trees. On that other planet. It was covered with grass except for clumps of trees. Kemp was the first to notice that the animals avoided the area close to the trees. He was wondering why. He went into a large clump, there were eight or ten in a circle I think and was taking samples when…” he trailed off as if the memory was too painful.
They walked along with only the sound of the waves and the soft crunch of their footfalls on the sand. Finally the man spoke again.
“Remember I said that Astronomers had detected strong radio signals from that place. Well it was Kemp that found out it was from the trees. The soil was not very good. The only way the trees could survive was to become carnivorous plants. The difference was they didn’t trap little things like a Pitcher Plant or Venus Flytrap does. Instead they developed a strong electrical potential between the trunks. That’s why the clumps were always an even number, half were positive and half negative and they all seem to have been sprouts from one central parent core that built up the electrical potential. When an animal got into the middle of a clump the electricity was released as a powerful burst of pure tone microwave radiation. It’s just like a huge microwave oven.”
The woman looked horrified. “And Kemp?”
“Little animals are just killed. A big animal like Kemp might have survived if there were just a couple of trees. The thing was the bigger the clump of trees the more power it can accumulate and this was an unusually large clump. We just heard the crackle of electricity and he started to scream. I guess this clump hand’t eaten in a while it must have discharged several hundred thousand watts into Kemp. I looked over just in time to see what happens when every fluid in someones body boils at once. He exploded into fragments. Even the bones were broken up. Then before we could react shoots came up out of the ground and engulfed what was left and drug them down out of sight.. It was over in less than a minute.”
“Oh, I am so sorry” she said taking his hand.
“It was then we pretty much lost interest in exploring the planet” he said with a sigh. “We didn’t say anything to each other. Just went back to the shuttle, flew up to the ship and got ready for departure. That was when we lost …” The man’s voice caught in his throat and he stopped talking. They walked along silently. He tried to hold the emotion back but his vision was obscured and he was betrayed by a stumble. The woman said nothing as there was nothing she could say.
They approached an outcrop of rocks on the beach. An aeons old hunk of lava that stood like a sentinel despite the battering from the waves. Around the base of the several meter tall stone were scattered fragments torn loose by storm waves. Eventually the whole mass would suffer the same fate but for the moment the stone seemed to be saying to the ocean ‘Someday you will win but that day is not this day’.
They stopped a few feet from the stone. The man crouched down on the sand and buried his face in his hands, letting the tears flow. For a long while there was only the sound of the waves on the sand. Finally the man was spent. He wiped his eyes and looked up at the woman.
“There’s one part of this I don’t understand.” he said his voice still horse from emotion.
“Even if the leaders were corrupt why didn’t the people finally say ‘enough’. I mean they had to see what was happening even if their leaders tried to keep it from them. They had a vote, I mean even if there were a few dictatorships around all the major powers were Democratic.”
The woman looked at him. It was the look one gives a small child that has said something embarrassingly naive. She crouched down next to the man and started to play with a pebble in the sand.
“You underestimate the power of large groups of uneducated people. You underestimate the power of large groups of people who only see as far as their own horizon. You underestimate the power of large groups of people who want desperately to believe in the Good Old Days.” She turned and drew close, her face mere inches from the mans. “You underestimate the power of people to put aside truth in favour of a scapegoat.”
The man said nothing.
“People kept believing the news, believing the radio, believing media of all kinds without realizing that the people putting out the information were working for companies and governments and, yes powerful people, that made lots of money from the status quo. The people making the decisions did not care how many died as long as their accumulated wealth went up. The people listening preferred to believe simple lies than the complex hard truth.”
The man looked at her. “That can’t be right.” he said “People aren’t that dumb.”
“When over half don’t see any value in voting, the decisions are left up to the radical minorities who listen to the talking points and vote as they are told. When politics becomes a big business only those that sell their souls can get the money they needed to run. When choices are filtered through ‘what’s good for me’ rather than ‘what’s best for us’ then leaders don’t get support for the hard decisions. When those that have a vested interest in the outcome run the elections and count the votes there is little chance of the rational voices coming out on top. No” she finished, “your ‘Democracy’ ceased to function in any meaningful way by the end of the 20th century. After that it was a fig leaf used by the corrupt to lead the ignorant. ”
He looked at her “I just can’t believe people could be that stupid.”
“Do you remember Galileo?”
“The astronomer? The first man to point a telescope at the stars and planets?”
“Yes him. He got in trouble for writing about the things he saw in the sky. For telling the truth. Do you remember what happened when Galileo showed a Cardinal the moons of Jupiter?”
“The Cardinal stepped back, looked at Galileo and said ‘I do not believe that’. He refused to accept the truth even when it was in front of his eyes and chose to believe a comforting lie told by the church. Now tell me what is the average person going to do when they see the environment falling apart, see species’ disappearing, when they see climate change erasing the ice cap? Are they going to believe a scientist they’ve never heard of who says that it’s his, and everyone else’s fault and they have to radically change their lifestyle, or are they going to believe someone on the TV who’s well spoken and tells them it’s all right, that all this talk is just a conspiracy and they need to fight to get back to the good old days. That the greatest threat is ‘terrorists’, not the company down the road poisoning the water and the air. Are they going to believe the expert that says that pollution is changing the worlds climate on a scale of decades or the politician saying that the snow that fell one time last December proved them wrong.”
“I see what you mean.”
The woman continued, her voice taking on a tone of anger once again. “It was absurd. People kept accepting scape goat after scapegoat. First Jews, then Arabs, the Gays, then Foreigners, even the scientists themselves, the list just went on and on. It was always some else’s fault. They ignored what was in front of their eyes and chose to believe a comforting lie.”
The woman looked out at the sea, her eyes glittering in anger. “They kept cutting trees assuming there would always be more. They kept taking fish assuming their would always be more. They kept mining essential materials assuming there would always be more. They kept polluting the air and water assuming their would always be more. Finally there wasn’t. But the average person refused to believe it. That’s when the wars started.”
“Oh yes.” said the woman grimly. “Oh there was always some excuse. ‘That country has our oil’. ‘That other country is harbouring ‘Terrorists’, whatever that was. Those people are hoarding the minerals we need to keep your factory running. The powerful moved in to kill the weak to take their meagre share. As the environment got worse in those other countries the powerful killed the weak as they tried to flee starvation. The weak started to kill the powerful to retaliate for their acts. Killing begat killing. The people who were being killed and robbed would fight back however they could. These acts would be used to justify more and more violence from the powerful. Soon ancient tribal hatreds were dredged up and people were killing their neighbours not for what they had done but for what an ancestor hundreds or thousands of years before may have done if a half forgotten myth was to be believed, and they were believed as long as the powerful said it was so. Lybia attacked Italy for what happened to Carthage. China invaded Mongolia for the crimes of Gengis Kahn. Honduras and Columbia went to war over a football game.” she trailed off into silence.
“Soon the land and sea ran red with blood. Above it all the powerful got richer by stealing from those that had what they wanted and selling it at higher and higher prices to other rich people that wanted it.” She shook her head, “Oh I am so disgusted with you primates I can’t stand it. ”
“But why would anyone fight for oil or wood or whatever?”
“Haven’t you been listening? They chose to believe the lies. Spain did not blow up the Maine but the US went to war over it. Iraq did not attack the World Trade Centre but the US went to war over it. Venezuela did not blow up the Channel Tunnel but the EU went to war over it. Australia did not nuke Shanghai but China went to war over it. Iran did not bomb the Taj Mahal, but India went to war over it. The powers that be saw something they wanted and used the most recent atrocity done in the name of religion or patriotism, or whatever to justify taking it. They didn’t care how many died. The lost mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, wives and husbands were either ‘necessary losses for the national good’ or they were ‘collateral damage’. Regardless they were always a reason to kill some more.”
They stood in silence for a long time as the waves crashed on the beach. Finally as the silence grew the man who had been lost in thought spoke. “We were going to get married when we got back you know.” he said finally.
“Laura, Dr. Jamison on the ship. We were so in love it hurts to think about it now.”
“She was the next one you lost?” said the woman her face softening.
“Yeah,” said the man, the words catching in his throat. “She was so much like me. She’d always kept her goal in focus. The same goal as me; to get into space, to be the first one to the stars. Neither of us had allowed ourselves a serious relationship. Neither of us were, frankly very good at getting to know people. But when we met it was like two puzzle pieces. We meshed, we knew what each other was thinking. We just fit together. Neither of us had known anything like this before.”
The woman walked over to the man and sat down beside him on the sand.
“So what happened?” she asked quietly.
“Well we’d not been able to communicate with Earth. Now I understand why but we figured it had to be something on our end. Laura was the communications engineer. She’d been looking at everything and it all checked out OK. Nothing was wrong. Finally she decided the problem had to be on the dish. We had this huge transmission dish on one side of the ship. She went outside the ship to inspect the electrical equipment at the prime focus.”
The man paused for a few seconds. He cleared his throat and continued.
“Well she was working at the prime focus. Normally when someone was outside we have several people watching them. One other person outside in a space suit that can bring them in if something happens I was always on the flight deck watching the monitors. Also there would always be one more looking out windows to keep an eye out in case something is happening the rest of us can’t see and the doctor in the medical bay just in case”
“You didn’t do that this time?”
“No we didn’t.” said the man sadly. “We were down three people and we were trying to get everything ready to head for home. Laura was doing the EVA, and I was on the flight deck setting the navigation systems. The doctor was below packing up for departure.” The man paused and looked around. “Like this place is home any more.” he added sarcasm dripping from his words.
“Anyway, Laura was at the prime focus of the dish checking the electronics. and I was keeping half an eye on her from the flight deck while I programmed the computer. Nobody was watching the ships attitude.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“Well, we came around the nighttime side of the planet. When we popped into the sunlight the dish happened to be facing the sun.” The man stopped again. Silently, without being conscious of it he began to beat his fist against a rock sitting on the sand. Soon the stone was covered in blood, the red standing out against the black rock and yellow grey sand.
“It was my fault.” he said his voice rising in fury. “I was supposed to warn her of any impending danger. But no I didn’t do my job. I…I didn’t see it coming.” he stopped again as a mix of anger and sadness and guilt choked his words. It took him several minutes to control himself. Finally he began again.
“One hundred square meters of unfiltered sunlight hit Laura’s space suit. She was looking toward the electronics and didn’t see it coming. I didn’t even have time to hit the microphone button and shout a warning. The beam hit her in the back and there was a flash and a burst of static on the radio. She was incinerated in a tenth of a second. One blinding flash and all that was left was her boots and gloves floating away.”
The woman looked at the man, pain etched on his face. “I’m so sorry,” she began. Then words failed her and her own tears began to run down her cheeks.
The two of them sat in silent pain for a long time as the sun approached the horizon.
“So,” said the man trying to regain his composure. “What happened to all the animals. The surf is the only thing moving other than you I’ve seen since I landed. I mean cows and dogs OK but I can’t believe roaches and crabgrass were lost too.” he wiped the tears from his face and cleared his throat. “When I was a kid we used to joke that there would always be coyotes. They could adapt to anything.”
The woman looked at him “Metastability” was all she said.
The man looked at her without comprehension. She sighed and started to explain.
“A simple system runs down to a stable point. The ball ends up at the bottom of the stairs. But a metastable system can have multiple stable points and the more complex the system the more likely that is to be the case.”
“But what does that have to do with all this?” said the man gesturing toward the desolate horizon inland.
“The most complex system on Earth is the climate. It will set in one configuration and resist change until it gets enough input to force it to another configuration point. Hot with deserts. Cold with glaciers. Tropical with jungles. High oxygen levels. Low oxygen levels. High sea levels. Low sea levels. Plant dominated. Animal dominated. Stone dominated. There a million variables making up the climate and hundreds of different combinations of them are stable. Humanity enjoyed one that was temperate, and quite hospitable. But they took it for granted.”
“Is that the climate change thing we were hearing about just before we left?”
The woman gave him a look of disgust. “Yes ‘that climate change thing’ was humanity playing with the most hideously dangerous toy imaginable.
“But,” asked the man apologetically, “didn’t there come a point when even the most obstinate have to admit that there had to be another way? At some point even someone looking for a profit has to see that soiling everything will cut into what they make.”
The woman looked at him with those sad eyes. .
“By then it was too late.” she said, her voice low and menacing.
“What do you mean too late?”
“You studied geology. The Earth has had many environments over the aeons, right.”
“Well, each environment is stable. When the climate is pushed by one thing or another it resists. It keeps trying to go back to where it was, up to a point. When that point is crossed it will snap to another environment.”
“So about 75 years after you left the Earth reached a tipping point. So many trees had been cut down, and so many tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane pumped into the atmosphere, and so much plastic garbage floating in the oceans, and so many creatures pushed to extinction the Earth could not hold back. The oceans had warmed and stagnated. The methane ices in the arctic seabed had destabilized and melted. The earth had gotten very warm. The ice caps had melted flooding large areas. Whole countries disappeared. Everything below a hundred meters deep was anoxic. By then most people and most leaders had come around and called for people to clean up their act. Meetings were held. Plans were put forward. The thing was, it was too late. Mankind could have ended all pollution that day and the earth had already crossed the point of no return. It was just waiting for a trigger. You know the last time the earth was in such a state?”
The man thought back to the Geology class he took in college. “The Permian catastrophe?” he asked.
“Got it in one.” he said with a wicked wry grin. “That was the last time the Earth decided to kill almost everything. One day 83 years five months and three days after you left it happened. It started in the middle of the Atlantic triggered by a particularly powerful hurricane. The low pressure drew the deep anoxic water to the surface. It replaced the water at the surface killing everything in it’s path. With the pressure released the water literally fizzed like a warm beer opened too fast. The gasses coming out consumed the oxygen in the air. The bubbles rising through the water generated a current that drew more deep anoxic water upward. From then on it was like a chain of dominos. The wave of black water rising from the bottom raced south until it hit Antarctica, then split, one side going into the Indian Ocean and the other spreading out into the Pacific. The other side of the wave ran north, around Iceland and Greenland, across the ice free arctic. Then it passed through the Baring Strait to meet the wave in the mid Pacific. In a week the whole of the worlds oceans had turned over. The anoxic water sucked up the oxygen in the air. The atmosphere dropped to 1% oxygen and everyone and everything suffocated. All land animals died. Even most plants died because of the dark sulphurous methane clouds blocking the sun. Just like at the end of the Permian, the Earth had decided it was time to start over.”
The two of them stook and started walking along the shore in silence. The man coming to grips with the horror of what he’d heard.
He suddenly stopped. Turning he put his hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“Wait a minute”
“What is it?”
“The colonies. How could a disaster on Earth take out the colonies. We had people living on the Moon and Mars, and Titan , and Encelidus. There must be people there still couldn’t there?”
“No I’m afraid Duty won out.”
The man took a step back. “What do you mean?” he asked shocked. “One of the reasons for having colonies elsewhere was in case of a disaster on Earth.”
“What do countries do in case of war?” she asked grimly. “They marshall their resources to win. Maintenance was neglected. Money was diverted to ‘needs’ on Earth. As systems failed, people started to come home. Soon their wasn’t many people left out in space. Then when the wars got really severe all nations with people in these colonies ordered them back to help them win. It never occurred to them that all sides might lose.”
“But,” started the man. “The whole point was to use the colonies to save the Earth.”
“Yes” she said with a smirk, “and that’s the biggest tragedy of all. If done right there wouldn’t have been the wars. People could have been living happy and healthy on every rock in the Solar System and the Earth could have been a park. It would have been a lot of work but it could have been done.”
“So why wasn’t it?”
She turned and glared at him. “Haven’t you been listening?” she was shouting at him now. “Nobody took responsibility. Just one more tree won’t hurt. Just one more child. Just a little more money so I can be happy. When it was questioned everyone had someone to blame. Someone else would fix it. They trusted government, and News, and Business to protect them. It was the foreigners. It was the Moslems, the Jews, the Gays. Finally even the Bigots tried to portray themselves as an oppressed minority. If nothing else they could always turn to religion. God, is doing this. God will fix it. Hell, why work when there’s God around. In the end people leaned back on ‘faith’ to save them rather than getting off their asses and solving the problem. I mean after all why do you have these damned big brains if not to solve problems? But what did they do with them? They sat around and prayed that somehow ‘God’ would reach down and help them continue their bloated, corpulent, piggish, unsustainable lifestyles. They assumed that God was on their side and approved of whatever sadistic, inhuman, bloodthirsty thing they did.” She gestured around the horizon
“Look around. Look at this desolation. This is the triumph of you lazy passive aggressive apes.”
She paused, and turned to look at the man where he sat. “No I take that back you’re not lazy or passive at all.” The words came out like a curse. “You are just aggressive. You took every opportunity to kill each other. Nothing changed over the millennia whether it was hypersonic missiles dropping nuclear bombs, or high tech troops invading Iraq, or rifle bearing GIs marching across Europe, or cavalry soldiers in the crimea or armoured knights going on crusades, or sword swinging barbarians killing for rape and plunder, or bronze armed warriors killing the neighbouring city-state, or stone armed people killing travellers in the Alps, heck it goes all the way to your chimp like ancestors that killed the neighbouring clan for a particularly good banana patch.” She stopped, breathing heavily. Then as her emotions settled she buried her face in her hands and started to sob quietly.
The man was silent for a long while. Then he moved to stand next to her. After a few minutes they started down the beach once again.
“At some point you give up though.” He said.
“What’s that?” she said clearing her throat and wiping the tears away.
“I said, at some point you give up, or at least some people do. Maybe that’s why so many turned to religion.”
“What do you mean?”
“After Laura was killed, Tanaka had been very quiet. She was the ships doctor and maybe she felt the losses more than I did. What am I saying? Nobody could feel Laura’s loss the way I did. Anyway she was a healer but every one of them had died in some way that she could not do anything about. ”
“Survivors guilt?” asked the woman.
“Probably. Could be that she felt useless after all of that. She’d gone all the way there and not treated anything worse than a headache. I don’t know. Al I do know is that she still went about her duties, not that there was a lot to do but without any chit chat. When not busy she’d sit by herself in the observation dome for hours and look out the window. I probably wasn’t much better though. I was mourning Laura,” he paused and then added “and the others of course.”
“We both just did our jobs and we really only saw each other at meals or passing in the corridor. Even at mealtime we usually sat in silence and ate. A week or two, I lost track, after the ship reached top speed Tanaka did not come to the dining room for breakfast. I looked all over but I couldn’t find her. Finally I found a note taped to the wall next to the air lock. It just said “I can’t do this any more.”. She was gone but no space suits were missing. I guess she just couldn’t handle it.”
She looked over at the man. Her face betrayed a flash of pity but her eyes continued to glitter in fury. Then she continued her story.
“After the seas turned over the toxic cloud covered the earth for about a year. Once that dissipated and everything was good and dead next came the fungus to clean it all up.”
“What do you mean the fungus?” asked the man looking over at her with a shudder.
“What do you get when the whole world is covered with corpses. People, dogs, cats, elephants in the zoo, seals on the beach, birds in the garden all dead. Forests that had been cut down left to decay and those still standing killed off by the dark and cold. Buildings with no one to maintain them. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the air for anything to burn so even the dead grasslands just stood there. There was nothing to disturb the silence. No carrion eaters, neither vultures nor flies to clean up. What do you get then?”
“I guess you get fungus.”
“Right. Whole continents, lakes rivers, mountains, cities, and plains covered with a silent sea of fungus. Gray fir covered every inch of everything. Sometimes an ambitious mushroom showing some colour or slime mould some movement, but mostly just grey fur and silence. The grey sea consumed all that was humanities heritage. It consumed the surviving plants on land. It consumed the seeds laying on the ground. It consumed the remaining insects and nematodes, and spiders, and flatworms, and flukes, and such. It was a silent, slow grey fire that scorched the land leaving it ready for the next phase. Fungus couldn’t live in the sea but there was bacteria. In the end there was nothing left for the fungus to eat and then the fungus fed upon itself until the land was completely barren.”
They walked on. Another rocky outcrop appeared up the beach and they approached. By unspoken agreement stopped near by.
“The kingdom of the mushrooms lasted about ten years. By then just enough oxygen had been put back to the air by plankton for things to come out of hiding. Nearly everything of the old Earth had been consumed and put back into the soil. A few lucky fish and arthropods that had survived in a few isolated ocean refuges had started to come out. Mosses and blades of grass from the highest peaks started to recolonize the land. The Earth started to put itself back together. Then after another century you returned. The last man on earth.” she ended with a slight, bitter laugh.
The man though for a second. “You know, you sound like you lived through all of this. How did you survive?”
“Look over here,” she said pointing and pointedly ignoring his question. “Remember I said that the Earth was starting over? Well there you go.” A small fish like a mudskipper was pulling itself out of the water and crawling up on the lowest of the rocks. There it stood gasping and looking at the two of them.
“It’s ancestors were tough and hid out in some sheltered place in the sea. It inherited a toughness and adaptability that will serve it well as it fills all the niches on earth.” she said with a grim smile.
“So that little thing is going to repopulate the Earth?” asked the man.
“Exactly. It is the greatest grandfather of everything that will come from here on. You know, I think this time maybe the dinosaurs should get a better shot. I always suspected they just didn’t have enough time to break out. They have to be able to do a better job than you greedy little primates.”
The man looked over at the woman where she stood on the beach. The sun was behind her and the radiance made her hair shine and sparkle like a halo. She seemed lost in thought. As they stood there in the fading light of the setting sun he turned to look at the the little fish gasping on its rock.Watching the gathering gloom in silence a question formed in the mans mind.
“Who are you?” he asked suddenly. She didn’t answer. The man looked inland at the desolation. The bare hills. The few blades of green scattered among the rocks. It would be a long time before this place could be home again, if ever. “Seriously, what is your name?” He turned to look toward where the woman stood on the beach.
She wasn’t there.
He looked back up the beach. Only one set of footprints lead back to where his ship sat a couple of miles away.
In the sand was scrawled
Then the sun was gone and blackness settled on the land.