apocalypse

No New Songs Were Sung

On the day the last new songs were sung, the world turned like on any other. We went to work, we laughed with our children, we fought with our lovers, we prayed to our gods, we listened to music. We danced, we labored, we died. We celebrated our newborn, and we mourned and buried our dead.

Life went on like it always did. Ignorant to the fact that all the while, the end reached for us in the night. 

On the day the last new songs were sung, we looked up at the darkness that crept across the sun, leaving us in shadow. We fled the beaches chased by tides thrown into chaos by a foreign gravity, shivered in the night that enveloped the world.

We looked up in fear and in wonder.

On the day the last new songs were sung, our leaders took to our televisions, our phones. They told us not to panic, that these visitors may come in peace. They begged for our patience and asked we trust their leadership. They promised there was nothing to fear.

They were wrong.

On the day the last new songs were sung, our screens cracked, and the unquiet faces of our presidents, prime ministers and monarchs were replaced by a speakable terror, one all the more frightening because it could be beheld, a face of phalanges and sharp teeth and bleeding eyes.

Its skin rippled, like beneath the gray epidermis, a thousand new creatures struggled to break through to the surface. When it spoke, it spoke to directly to the mind, in the language of the listener, with a voice like a razor, like fire, like death.

"We do not come in peace."

Children clutched their mothers and their fathers, who were too busy plumbing their own terror to comfort.

"We are not here to enlighten or to learn, to offer succor or exchange culture."

People left their cars and wandered the streets, unable to escape the words that followed.

"We are here for one reason. We are always where we are for that reason. We are the ones who purge, who burn. And we will until there is no more life on the universe."

We fell to our knees as a species, begging heaven for benediction that never forthcame.

"Good-bye." The face, the indelible, undeniable horror, melted away from our screens if not our minds. Leaving one last thought melting away with the static.

“You have 12 hours. After that, your kind will sing no more.”

Silence.

We found out, on that day the last new songs were sung, the many ways humankind confronts oblivion. Some violently, looting and assaulting those who were damned along with themselves. Some passionately, seeking the absolution denied them by God in the flesh of another. Some stoically, sitting prosaic in a forest or at the beach or in the quiet of their homes, waiting for what cannot be avoided. Some denied oblivion the pleasure, going before the burning into the night, scuffing and bloodying as they took to the air and let gravity free them.

Time passed, and so did we, in various ways, until the hour of reckoning. And then, a high-pitched keening. The shadow stretched across the sky, brighter and brighter and hotter and hotter, we raised our hands to block out the sun in orbit, and watched as they melted into fire.

We did not have time enough to scream before flame burned all life away. Forests became ashes, and the oceans steam, and the ground magma and the air ionized even as it burned in our lungs, even as our lungs disintegrated and our forms became naught but shadows reaching, reaching into the hereafter.

And the ship left our orbit, satisfied that one more source of life had been silenced. And our Earth entered the Quiet times.

Where no new songs were sung.

The only chorus came from the wind whistling through hollow structures, tossing up the ashes that were our lives. The only melody the silent hymn of rain pattering in the deep basins, Atlantic and Pacific, filling them with empty water where once it teemed with life.

And there was no music, except the hushing waves of the new ocean.

Life remained. A microscopic bacterium that survived the boiling ocean. A single cell, with no thought but to reproduce. No instinct but to spread itself across a world that was now its own. And it grew, and grew, growing in purpose and complexity.

Until the only sound was the bubbling of primordial ooze in a silent sea.

From the ooze grew algae, which kicked up by the wind and the storms was the first life to return to land. Fungus mixed with the ashes left by life long ago, sinking deep into the Earth, taking root, becoming something more than what they were. Moss, and then plants… and then trees.

Earth returned to Earth.

Forests that stood long before the rule of man found themselves reseeded across the rusty graveyards of our cities, the bones of a world burned away and forgotten. The planet flourished in silence.

Life returned to the ocean.

Born in the silt and in the dark, beasts that knew nothing of light sprouted their way to the surface. Blinded and ignorant to land, they laughed. For their world was vast enough without it.

And the only poetry was the dance of creatures at sea.

The world turned and turned and turned, and in the minds of the beasts of the sea, a kernel of memory remained about the land that burned, and whose creatures died all those years ago. A kernel that burgeoned into curiosity, directing the evolution of some, alleles varying toward the shore.

Until one day, some new thing dragged itself into life on the mud left by the tide. She stood on shaky flipper-legs on the beach and opened her mouth, drawing in cold morning air, laughing as she limped toward the forests’ world.

She laughed, and in her laughter, the first new song was sung.

 

End And Beginning

                Picture the unfathomable darkness of the nowhere the universe has become. A black the pitch of moonless night, but instead of centered in the sky, it is everywhere. The whole of existence collapses in on itself, the crunch of entropy come to bear on a limitless expanse once filled with vibrance, with color. Now all is sublimed in frigid emptiness, and silence. God casts his canvas in shadow. No hint of the paint beneath remains. Nothing breaths, nothing moves, and nothing lives.

                Nothing, except for…

                One bright light in the corner of the frame. Glowing, burning, it dwindles, recedes, fades, then gathers itself again and fights to expand against the tide of absolute zero. Here lies the everything that once spread over several billion light-years, now smaller than an atom, barely a quark of light left to battle against nightfall. Listen closely, and inside it you hear the ghosts of those the universe once contained. A cacophonous song, a dirge, a chorus in a million different languages. Here is voiced the anguish, the joy, the relief that their struggles have come to an end, the sadness that so too has passed their time with loved ones. So many things left unsaid, so many sentiments impossible to vocalize. And all that remains is light.

                Were there any observer to peer into the light, to listen to its song, they might entertain its visions. That of a blue-green world circling around a yellow star. First it sings of its creation, burning dust and effluence cooling and coalescing around an iron-nickel core. It sings of the rain clouds, of the water that patters against the still-soft surface, filling its dimples as oceans. Life sludges forth from its oceans, first mindless protozoa. Eukaryotes with no sense of place swim and crawl of microscopic flagella. Those develop into primitive plant-life, into the first animals that, on some small level, perceive their own existence. Reptilian creatures, increasingly mobile mammals, love and destruction follow. A song that burns as brightly as it ends, with a pockmarked and radioactive surface. Lifeless, yet the planet still turns.

                The light also sings of an endless stretch of stars, of nebulae wherein hide creatures sized on an interstellar scale. They swim through space-dust, subsiding on ice and on the stars themselves. They speak to each other in burst of radiation, penetrating the void’s gloom on aquiline paths. Brilliant lights cast by celestial beasts. In the collision of these lights, more such creatures are born. Star orcas crafted of molten rock, organic comets obscured by dust clouds lightyears thick.

                The light sings of life beyond imagining. Invisible minds constructed of song and scent. A network of intelligence that extends through the universe. One heart, several souls, they dream of connection and thus seek the known reality for like beings. But they are alone. As were we all.

                Across the quark that possesses all these memories passes an invisible hand, stoking the fire. The only presence that burns still in a universe gone fallow. A voice, from nowhere, from everywhere, from here and from beyond, whispers into the light, reminding it of a once glorious purpose.

                What was… will be.

                And the light, in fits and starts, continues to grow.

Mantra for a Dying World

 

All it takes is one bad day…

                Those words, whispers on her lips with the dawn. The last thought echoing through her head as dreams seek purchase. Meager distractions from whatever patch of ground made for last night's bed. She closes her eyes and thinks of better days, when all was green and she possessed everything she ever wanted… when she—what a fool!—was not satisfied with happiness and, in reaching for Godhood, destroyed the world. Now here she lies on a throne of dust, the Queen of Ashes.

                She stretches, onyx cloak shading her from what faint light signifies the morn. She yawns, and shadows genuflect around her. Long thin shades grasp at her, thwarted by the rising, flickering sun. A candle burned down to the nub, the beleaguered star provides heat enough, and brilliance enough, to allow at least one more reprieve from the dark.

                One… bad… day…

                She opens her eyes to see the ever-present cloud of soot hovering above her head: blackness obliterating a gray sky. Undulating, keening, the dim inorganic presence contains more life than she. She lies still a moment, lost in the embrace that teases her dreams night after night. Love's warmth, the joy she lost many lifetimes ago. How many innocents have crumbled away to nothing in her grasp since? Their faces, their names, were lost to her in the gusts of time, a tunnel that harkened back further than she chose to remember. Forgetting was far easier. Better to focus on the sins still to come than the ones already committed. Let the dead remain dead. The living join them soon enough. If only she could forget her smile, her eyes, green and wide and bright and focused on the Queen. If only…

                Then she becomes aware again of the cold, jolting her back into wakefulness and the ubiquitous wasteland. As far as she can see spreads death, the ossifying of a once vibrant planet. Before her hisses the desert. On the horizon, angry mountains belch smoke and bleed fire. In the middle distance, clouds that stretch from the heavens to the Earth block the landscape from view. But she knows what waits there for her, the same emptiness plaguing the rest of the world.  As always, when not teased by memories of her faceless love's prophetic death rattle—or nightmares of the fateful day when all was lost—the siren song of life, that divining rod, points her towards the last vestiges of light. Calls her forth to douse the hopes of a dying species, one she once called her own. For regret it or not, her path leads towards the end. A commitment not easily shirked. Only then, when the quiet in her soul settles on the Earth entire, will she rest.

                The Queen rises to her feet, and the cloud of soot descends upon her dark, fleshy husk, a soulless vessel of malevolent intent. She senses it questing within her, seeking life. Finding none, it turns its search outwards, listening for far-off heartbeats, for running water, for…

                Joy thrills through her from the haze, its eyes, and hers, alight on a river in the distance. There, in a nook by shore, hides a garden. Shriveled and sickly to be sure, but alive nonetheless. And where there is green, no matter how slight, there is sure to be… yes! Humankind. A small figure, cheeks stained with charcoal, picks its way through the twilight. The child, a young girl, heads towards her sanctuary. The Queen of Ashes clenches her jaw in anticipation, pleasure and hunger throbbing in her fists. Where there is a child, there is also civilization.

                Some atavistic slice of her brain recalls the phrase: It takes a village…

                She floats towards the river, towards the horizon where life awaits, begging to be broken. The child's path leads her one step closer to manifesting ruin.

                She will visit violence upon this village. They will learn the truth she cannot forget. The truth it is her sole remaining purpose to establish. A truth reflected in the final words of a woman whose face and whose name she can no longer remember. Only the warmth they felt for one another remains. That and her prescient final utterance. A fitting mantra for a dying world.

                All it takes is one bad day.

Ashes to Ashes

He sat in the saloon, on a dusty stool in a dingy room, holding a cold drink in gloved hands. Watching the world burn from hooded eyes. Earth slid after him into darkness. Every eye is upon him. The man of legends. King of Ashes. He who cannot be touched. Each man dreams of the bounty on his head. Each man fears death.

He dumps the brew down his throat, careful to ensure that no part of the glass touches his skin. Swallowing it all in one practiced gulp. A towering presence blocks his light. Its shadow belongs to a large mountain of a man who approaches where no others would dare.

"Are you the man myths claim you are?”

Emptying another glass, he squints up at the bulk: "I am he."

The mountain sits beside him and for a while they drink together and do not speak.

"E’er been down by old Atlante? Once was an outpost there..."

The man sighs. He knows where this is headed. He signals the barkeep for another drink, the prospect of death and the dealing of death was not one he relished sober. Another one of his many sins caught up to him. Another conflict comes, one with only the single possible conclusion.

"And what if I was?”

The mountain turns to face him, eyes simmering in rage.

“How'd you leave it, the town?"

Waiting for his drink, the King of Ashes winces and forces the difficult words out into the open, sealing both their fates.

"As I recall, there weren't much left."

He removes the glove from one hand, rests the other on the bar. The man, the tired, aggrieved man stares at the mountain a while as its face contorts with anger and grief. He watches, and imperceptibly, his stance softens. After a while of foisting off the desperate and the vengeful, one can begin to tell the difference between the two. Here sits a desperate man.

Finally, he whispers: "Who did I take from you?"

The mountain starts to weep. "M-my daughter[Ma1] ."

He stands and approaches the sobbing mountain, resting the still gloved hand on his shoulder. A futile gesture of comfort. He knows what else he offers is of greater worth to this lost cause.

"And... would you like to join her?"

Sniffling, eyes leaking, the large man doesn't answer. But he doesn’t reject the King either.

He removes the other glove. Both bare hands, weapons of mass destruction, at the ready.

"I can see it. Beyond the gate she sits and waits... for you. I, the keeper, can bring you there. The destination where all your suffering ends. Where you daughter lingers."

                Where he waits for me…

He shows the mountain his hands. His unassuming, yet most dangerous, hands.

"I can take you to her. I will, if you wish it."

The mountain thinks, then asks in a mousy tone belying his bulk: "Does it hurt?"

The now gloveless man shakes his head. "No, not for long.”

The mountain bows his head, answer enough. The King of Ashes touches skin to his skin.

"Sorry" He says, realizing that he too is crying, "I'm sorry."

It happens quickly. The transformation, the disintegration, begins in an instant. The mountain’s skin grays, grows flaky. His face convulses once, then crumbles away. Where once there was bulk, now lies only ash.

The bar’s patrons watch as the King dons his gloves, quaffs his beer and exits, never to return. None rise to pursue, despite the lion’s bounty on his head. As he leaves, it is not the mountain he sees—his most recent victim—but another, younger face. One that mirrors his own. One that cracks and tumbles away with the wind. As he leaves, quiet tears become loud sobs. Grief settles heavily upon him yet again.

"My son! Oh my son!"

He mourns in the desert, a speck in the distance wandering away from one more lost watering hole. As always, he is alone.

A Coming Storm

“No one could ever say where The Rains first came from; we only knew that they would never cease.”

As the barge cut through the fog, rain beat on its steel hull with the muted staccato of distant timpanis—a calming lullaby to the increasingly drunk Captain Lawash. Clotted rust’s stench, mixed with stale salt-water, choked her senses. No matter how many years she spent at sea, she never became noseblind to its rot. She never adjusted to the slow accumulation of scents, gathering like the water that leaked through the rivets which held her vessel together.

The captain finished her flask and lay back on her bunk, her mattress hard like a stone. She swam through hooch and memories of her youth. Closing her eyes, she saw the world as it was then, bathed in a pleasant yellow glow. Dew-streaked grass tickled her bare feet as she danced through her parents’ backyard. Marcy, the family dog, sniffed at her face, large wet snout touching her diminutive and dry nose. They watched her, Mom and Dad, from the doorway, smiling. Her mother’s arm wrapped loose around her father’s waist, in the easy manner they had with one another.

When she was nine, the sun disappeared under roiling clouds, beneath endless layers of drab blues and gray. The Rains began to fall, fittingly enough, as she waded in the ocean at the beach. Watching the distant ocean waves that would one day be her home—that would soon consume the Earth entire—she let her Dad lead her away.

“Don’t worry, Silly,” He calmed her as she pouted, “We’ll come back another day.”

They never did. In the coming weeks, as the nature of the crisis became clear. He was called away to study the coming emergency. Frightened nations convened a global institute of pre-eminent climatologists who found nothing but questions with no answers. Where did the precipitation originate? How could the storm spread across the whole globe? When would it end?

How would humanity adapt if it never did?

“How fah we’ve fallin’…” She slurred and smacked her lips, “How fah are we still t’fall?”

Inebriation swaddled her better than her threadbare sheets ever could. Her mouth and head contained more cotton than the rags she shivered through. Her body screamed for water, but—even though as captain, she could easily requisition another liter—she dare not claim more than her fair share.

                Indeed, how far they had fallen. Cursed to drift through watery damnation, measuring every drink they took.

Her crew had precious few hours to work before they themselves had to retreat to their cabins, these men and women, and secure themselves against the danger to come. A storm approached, well, a storm fiercer than that which was always among them. Her meteorologist came to her early that afternoon with presentiments of calamity.

                “I see it in the clouds Ma’am. The ones we enter are mighty angry. Up to 125 kn.” He showed her calculations she could never quite wrap her head around, and then satellite images that were far clearer. Hurricane storm clouds barred their way to the Conclave

                She nodded shakily, buzzed even then. Her nips of that hip flask started earlier and earlier each day. Gordon, always by her side when not overseeing the dispensation of her orders, knew without being asked what was to be done.

                “I’ll see to it we start taking the appropriate measures captain.”

                On Gordon’s sturdy shoulder, she lay a trembling hand.

                “Thank you, Bosun. I’m counting on you.”

                He saluted, but could not hide the hurt in his eyes. The gulf between them grew wider every day. It grew, along with the gap between who she was now and the effective seaman she used to be. More and more she was consumed by her pain, fleeing from the burden of command into a bottle.

                Responsibility, it wore her down to a nub.

                Waiting for sleep, she imagined that over the deluge, she could hear her crew. A few dozen men and women worked through the night above, bearing their most precious cargos below deck and lashing everything else to the transport ship’s flatbed. Gordon, the boatswain, would be working them hard, drenching them in sweat as well as the ever present rain. Beneath her, in the stokehold, men and women drenched in sweat and with painted faces eased off the steam engines, slowing the barge’s pace to a crawl. Beneath them, horticulturists tended to their sustainable garden, the manufactured environment where they grew all their crops. Alongside them were biologists and veterinarians who prepared their livestock for the coming turbulence with gentle whispers, medicine and heavy doses of tranquilizers.

                Around her, the men and women whose lives depended on her stewardship worked, as she receded further into the fogs of drunkenness and sleep, wondering at the weakness of person she had become.

                “I wa’nt always like this,” She spoke to the remorseful ghosts. Every soul dead under her care watched her every night, silent and reproachful. Each loss had taken another piece of her, until most of her strength lay strewn about the ocean bottom and only a shell remained.

                This small part of her, this part that still lived, as she slipped into the comatose slumber of self-medication, hoped for the worst with surprising clarity.

                Perhaps this storm will claim us. Perhaps this pain can end…

                …Mom, Dad, I’ll see you again someday. Hopefully someday soon.

Dying of the Light

It began slowly at first, the barely noticed dimming. What with everything else on Earth plunging toward hell, one could not quite tell when the slow-death began. Perhaps when the oceans fled as vapor back to the skies, or when the trees ossified to wooden skeletons, or when nuclear detonation after detonation scorched the land. Eventually though, it was undeniable, and the when was less important than the what: our sun was dying. Every morning it rose: a little smaller, a little cooler. Earth’s self-immolation would be followed by destruction entire.

                Scientists were at a loss as to what was happening, or how. Common knowledge insisted the sun wouldn’t die yet for another fifty million centuries, and even then would pass by expanding, by boiling the Earth’s oceans if any remained, melting our mountains into valleys, cooking all dregs of life from the surface before lapsing into cool blackness. Instead, it collapsed in on itself, dwindling away into nothing as if a singularity within swallowed it whole. Eventually they stopped asking as it became clear no answer was forthcoming. Regardless of why the sun perished, or how, or when it started, the only fact before them that mattered was that it would happen, and there was no stopping it. Humanity was doomed. Civilization gave way to barbarism, which capitulated before desperation, and then that in turn succumbed to silence.

                And with each passing day, the ball that dragged itself across our sky grew slighter; our world grew colder; the planet-wide desert became a frigid wasteland. The few men and woman that still lived watched, trapped in desiccated, starving flesh, and waited for a night from which they would never wake. Those that cared to, for lack of other nutrients, subsisted on the flesh of others, dining on meals of bone and blood. Survival was not their aim. All knew life was an impossible goal, and yet, our atavistic instinct to feed on one another was all that survived in the face of destruction.

The sun shrank, and so did mankind. With each sunrise our population diminished. Some wondered, though only idly, would any remain for the final sunrise?

                Two in particular watched the sun set on one bleak day, a star barely distinguishable from any other. Icicles grew in their blood. They couldn’t move, they didn’t want to. There remained no food to eat, no water to drink, no warmth to be had. No task left to them but the dying. And they embraced that inevitability with all their hearts. One, a young son, turned to his father and asked, just for the sake of hearing a voice one last time:

“Well, what do we do now Pa?”

His father, himself flesh and bones nigh indistinguishable from their last meal—a henpecked skull that lay discarded and forgotten beside them—did not answer immediately. Indeed he might not have answered at all if the situation did not so remind him of a poem he heard many years ago, its name, author, and meaning all long forgotten. He spoke, his voice thin as reeds, as ice crept up his legs, choking the vision of darkness from his eyes. Finally, here was the end, there would be no tomorrow for this frozen orb.

“Rage, son, rage against th-”

In silence, in the black, on a world with no sky, we lay forgotten like so much frozen detritus. We slip, gently, into perma-night. None endure to mourn our loss.

Monks Who Dream Earth

                

                When the monks prayed for the end of our world, we did not disappear all at once—just as belief is not shattered in a night—only gradually did our reality chip away. Holes in space and time replaced by nothing. It was hard to notice, at first. The occasional spot of white where there should be meadow, or building, or air. The sluggish sun dragging itself up from the horizon across the sky. Briefly hesitating, as if it feared that each coming day might be the last. It falls, and in the darkness, in the shroud, we are choked more and more by dream's womb. Couples, families, disappeared from their beds at night with nary a trace. With their sheets still warm, or their dinners still uneaten.

One by one, these Monks, they stopped believing in us all.

                "Why do we dream of them?" They wonder, cloistered in rags and poverty's squalor, "This world that cannot be?"

                Their priory drifts through night, around them howling oblivion. Their earthen halls, stone chapels, dank and dripping in the vacuum of all there has ever been. In every corner of this temple to nothingness, there sits a bare altar to a God whose name they've forgotten, whose purpose they no longer serve. Driven out by memory, by fantasies of us. When not asleep, they wander, listless, as their monastery wanders through the emptiness. They do not hunger; they do not age; and they do not die.

                "Where do these visions come from? What is this madness that never was? This beguiling light named 'sun'?"

                Their ancient bald pates, wrinkled faces, when dreaming of children, contort at the idea of youth, so foreign to they who have always been old. And each night they tire of these nightmares, and long for sleep that matches the nothing of the reality that is.

                What were the finals nights for us, pass to the monks in a single shared dream. They see us fractured and broken. Eventually the collapse began in earnest, our features, our memories sloughed away, unable to withstand the a-Earthist tide. Chasms split the ground, swallowing whole cities, then they too were discounted as myth and slipped away. We held tight to each other, those who remained, and waited for the end. We gasped, garroted by the dissipating air. We clutched tight to one another, and despite our grasps, we faded… faded… unable to withstand the monastic apocalypse.

                Soon there is nothing, no cry, no grief, no sound but snores that soft penetrate Death's silence. The Monks sleep well. At peace in their minds with the void. The screaming quiet beyond their doors that never open. The cold outside their walls pressing upon every thought. Slowly creeping through them, permeating their being as they once permeated ours. Once again, they serve the Lord who created them. The barren hollow which birthed them.

And the void, their God, the empty foundation on which we were built, back into which Earth crumbled, is all that is real.

The Last Child

                Friends told her it was madness, to bring life into a world sentenced to die. They begged her to abort. “Spare him or her the pain,” They pleaded, “Spare them the brief light they would enjoy, so quickly extinguished.”

                But she did not listen. And eventually, absorbed by their own needs, they stopped calling. They forgot her and her insanity.

                Her husband’s was a silent warfare. Mentioning the swinger’s parties their friends and neighbors attended (what use was monogamy before the end?) offering her alcohol and other drugs that had previously been restricted or outright banned (what worth did Prohibition have at the eve of the Apocalypse?) he tried to tempt her from the Mother’s path. Eventually he left, no explanation, just a withering look that called her a fool. That pitied her for her sentiment. But he left all the same, in the arms of a younger woman and an older man. Free, in the eve of death, to pursue desires he no doubt had harbored all along.

                But still, she cradled her swollen stomach, and waited for her water to break.

                The moment came. With heretofore unknown strength she carried herself to the hospital. The few doctors that remained stared at her with disbelief, and outright resentment, wiped the exhaustion from their eyes and checked their watches. Their thoughts returning to their own families or loved ones, their own plans for eschatological bacchanalia. But regardless of how they felt about her folly, they performed their duties, and as the hours passed, one more life was brought into the world.

They cut the cord, checked to make sure the mother still lived, and fled.

                A shadow loomed over the world, though it was mid-day. They ran into darkness. The promise of Apocalypse, soon to be made fact.

                As she cradled her little girl, Shoshanna, she christened her before God and no one else, she was reminded of a funeral’s stillness. She looked into the eyes of the gurgling babe, and saw her mother’s. She tried in her mind’s eye to envision something other than their final closing, the silent procession of her corpse into the ground. She remembered her own eyes then, empty and dry, and wondered if she had known then what she knew now. That Earth’s remaining timespan was measured in years and not centuries, or even decades, if she would have mourned more openly.

                Well, it hardly matters now.

                She turned from the past, to the little future that remained. The daughter in her arms. She trembled, or maybe it was the shuddering Earth, anticipating the approaching moon-sized meteor. The baby did not cry. Perhaps even her daughter understood how little time they had together.

                “Why, you ask? Why did I insist you live, you wonder? Or would if you could. Perhaps, if there is an afterlife, and there you’re allowed to grow, you still might get the chance to ask. Why did I insist you live? Because… because…” She was interrupted by a scream in the distance.

                “Because, I think, even as we give way to the dark. Even as we are forgotten. I think it’s important that we remember-” Glass shatters, an entire species weeps, not going gentle into the night but with bright, yet pointless, fervor. “-we remember what we all struggled for. What we lived and died for.”

                The baby’s eyes locked on hers, and perhaps between them passed understanding.

                “You, the future, even though now you may be only a moment or two. What are we if we do not hand off the baton, regardless of how short the race? What is mankind, if not-”

                The meteor sinks into Earth like a stone into a quiet pond. The ground we thought solid and impenetrable collapses, and half the world disappears in an instant. The rest disintegrates a moment later, becoming dust adrift in space, hot masses slowly coalescing around a foreign core. That which destroyed the world becomes the foundation for something new.

Among the lost, the billions of human lives obliterated and then forgotten, a last child and her mother. Who both dreamed, despite its impossibility, of one more day in the sun.

 

The Folly of Our Fears

                It's amazing what humanity forgets when we're afraid. Forced underground by necrotic air, by blooming clouds of radiation, we huddle together as within us die memories of the sun. We fear leaving our hovels and the scent of flowers drops away. We weep over our misfortune and lose our sense of innovation and adventure, receding into the primitive night. We return spiritually to the time of our more simian ancestors, and in the dark, civilization dies again.

                One day, a child, who every time she sleeps dreams of flying through air she's never seen, wanders by the exit to our caves. Even those have been forgotten as we hunch over and wait to die of malnutrition, of the brutal violence we work against one another in the tunnels. She feels the wind in her hair for the first time and… remembers. Just flashes of what we lost generations ago. She climbs toward the scent, ascending over rubble and bone, back to the surface of the world we abandoned. Closer, closer, to the light, warmth on her face stirs more memories.

                We were… we were…  A voice within her bubbles to the fore. Joyful but full of caution. Centuries of fear are not easily forgotten.

                Upwards she scrabbles, scraping and bruising her knees and shins. The cavern's dims walls and floor seem to reach out for her, from the shadows. They try hinder and harm her passing as if to say 'there is no going back'.

                And yet, she persists. Rising like hot air rises, like steam towards the easiest point of egress.

                The pinprick of light expands into an opening atop a jagged mountain of debris, an opening just small enough for a child. Re-awakening man is the destiny of the young it seems. She scrambles up it, squeezes through the hole and…

                …breaks free into the dawn.

                It's even more beautiful than she could have possibly imagined. She smiles.

                We were fools to ever abuse this splendor.

The Deadly Hello

Death screamed across the sky that day, a glimmering star that crashed toward land with apocalyptic force. A small rock, an inconspicuous meteor, but one that nonetheless brought with it the end to everything we knew. From across a distance we could not begin to fathom, from a species that died before even the dinosaurs roamed, it came. A greeting from a race that saw our planet and thought 'One day, there could rise life.' And hoped to one day speak to that life. And sent a missive in their only language, a living language spoken in bacteria that communicated by sidling into cells, converting them into factories of their own mass reproduction. One not of letters, but replication. Not of speech, or written word, but volume.

Halfway through the long journey, an asteroid the size of Charon, Pluto's moon, crashed into their own world. The lives they knew ended in an instant.

After their message landed, it only took weeks for the first millions to die. Doctors could not even say why the sick were sick, but by the time the borders closed, it was too late. The armed guards' watchful eyes turned inward with illness. The language of the Outsiders had become our only language, manifested in phlegmatic coughs, in bloody stool, in the rapid onset of death. We knew not who spoke through us, only that there was no time for vehemence, nor for mourning. The graves of those who fell before us became our graves. And then our graves became wherever we fell.

The streets filled, and then they emptied, and then they filled with rivers of rot as the language corrupted all, emulsifying our corpses into puddles of man. The world drowned in us as we subsided. And then all we were was lost, only pool of flesh, of viscera, of molted bone.

Years, centuries, passed in silence. Only the occasional sigh bubbled from a carbon ocean, the only disturbance on our empty world. The bacteria lived on, giving birth, giving birth. The language spread, one not of speech, but life. Millennia passed, the bubbles birthed arches, those arches came together to form organic structures that breathed, that thought. The sludge moved and lived again. And the race, once living, once dead, once hopeful to communicate with our long forgotten selves, rose from our ashes to live again. Rose from our ashes to once again peer into the stars, seeking life to say 'Hello'.

Through the Wasteland, Together

                Water dripped in the corners of Alden's cell. Its low even sound, the constant soft drops, drove him mad in the dark. Tomorrow was the day. He was to be banished to The Outside, a lamb offered to Oblivion's Gods. The door was not locked, he was no more prisoner here than the rest of the survivors. He was separated to gather himself, to prepare himself for the coming morning when he would be expelled and, for the first time, see the sun. This duty was named an honor. It was a privilege to be chosen, to help ensure the continued existence of the small colony, of this hovel of humanity lodged deep underground.

                He was to be honored, his death feted and celebrated. Yet he felt nothing but dread, but longing.

                All the young ones knew the stories. Elders dressed in filmy skins and the rags from clothing of Before recounted the day where mankind's avarice consumed itself and scourged the surface. When fire fell from the sky. When death reigned. When a few desperate, lucky youngsters escaped into a squat bunker deep underground and eked a bare survival in rooms of metal and concrete, and prepared to wait the centuries it would take Earth to heal.

                Alas such meager surroundings meant sacrifice, meant forcing some out into the world, where obliteration undoubtedly destroyed them. And so each half year, among the boys and girls just at the threshold of adulthood, lots were drawn. And so each half year, one unlucky youngster was cast into the brink.

                This time, Alden was that unfortunate son.

                A sound at the door interrupted his reverie. It scraped open, and another young man, tears in his eyes, stood in its frame. Timid and unsure, he refused to meet Alden's steady gaze. Alden's steel countenance in no way matched his feelings. As he watched the young man at the door, his heart broke.

                Oh James… why did you come here?

                He thought the words, but James could read the feeling in his eyes.

                "I had to Al. I-" Tears streaked his face. "I couldn't just… not say goodbye."

                He took a step inside, one step closer to Alden, one step closer to weeping.

                "It's not fair!"

                "I know."

                "W-we deserve more time."

                "I know. I know." Now it was Alden's turn to tear up and stare at the rusted metal floor, the moldy concrete walls. Anything but the avatar of longing and beauty that mourned his imminent passing. But even as he avoided James' gaze, the memories of their short time together flooded in.

                Stolen glances during the elder's lectures, hidden smiles…

                Hands clutched together briefly under the desk, grazing his thigh, the electric thrill of an unknown pleasure.

                Lips briefly, furtively brushing against each other as fellow bunkmates slumbered.

                Passionate embraces in the few hidden spaces, and those whispered words. Those desperate 'I love you's.

                And in remembering, Alden sobbed.

                "I'm sorry James. I'm sorry."

                Their time for crying done, the two came together on the rickety cot. There making best use of the hours they had before morning. No need for furtiveness on the eve of the end. Eventually they slept: James dreaming of a life of loneliness, Alden imagining a slow, painful death on the wastes, overcome with angry red welts, dwindling into nothingness. He pictured his near-corpse on the sand, no strength left, hand futilely reaching back toward the way he came. Only one word graced his lips as he died.

                James.

                Eventually they both dreamed of the same thing, the same impossible thing. Their hearts and souls and bodies, together forever. The unimaginable bliss of that union. They dreamed of the world of their forefathers;  a world wrapped in life-giving green, drowned in clear blue oceans. They dreamed of the happiness that had for so many decades eluded their species.

                The sun rose over a bleak hellscape, though the remaining men were blind to it. Waking instead to a blaring alarm, and the words of the First Elder echoing through the halls.

                "RISE MY CHILDREN! RISE AND BEAR WITNESS! THIS DAWN HERALDS SACRIFICE, A BURDEN WE BEAR TOGETHER!"

                The halls slowly filled with dead-eyed youths, sickly men and women, the receding tides of once great Mankind. A few dozen malnourished hominids shambled towards the lock. The gnarled hands of James and Alden's matron Clara pushed open the door to the expiatory cell. Face immediately softening as she saw the two still embraced, still sleeping even through the noise. They stirred only as she entered, faces leaving the peace of their dreams.

                Alden spoke first, surprised at the boldness in his voice despite his cracking spirit. "It's time?"

                Clara could only nod. Of all the boys it was her duty to mind, these two had been her favorite. She sensed that today she would lose both of them. Alden to the surface. James to despair.

                James moaned. All words left him, all the light from his eyes, the life from his limbs, consumed by impending loss. They made their way through the crowd, all present giving Alden a wide berth. James' hand gripped tightly to his own. At the entrance to extinction, the eldest of the survivors, the sole adult who survived the surface purge, had already begun the rites of Expulsion. His words, quieted by age, were even further muted by their grief. And they heard little of the rituals they'd heard recited two score times before. Naught but the faint echoes of ceremonies past. Only the final lines reached past their despair.

                And so we commit Alden to the light, to the void born from The Heat That Burned Before. We lose him today, but in losing we gain the most important reminder: There is no God but death. His will is sacrosanct. His power absolute. By losing this child, we forestall the day he comes for us all. But not forever, not for long.

                With that, the frail looking elder separated the pair with surprising strength. James looked as though stricken, but remained silent. The lock tumbled open, leading to a narrow dark chamber. The outer door would not open until Alden entered, and the rest of man could seal him away, and any encroaching death, on the outside. Al turned to James, eyes dry, but red.

                "Good-bye, my… my…"

                James tried to smile, though through his despair the expression looked ghoulish. "Good-bye, Al." No need to name it. They knew what they were to each other.

                Their eyes locked one last time, and with a sad shrug, Al stumbled into the lock. And the door slowly, painfully began to roll back into place. James' heart stabbed as the man he loved most began to disappear forever.

                "NO!" The words escaped his lips before he realized he spoke them. His legs propelling him forward before even his brain realized his heart's need. And as the crowd dumbly watched, as only a horror-struck Clara cried out in protest, James slipped through the disappearing crack and into the vast death.

                Alden gaped at James in shock, though hidden on his lips was the hint of a smile. "James?"

                "I had to."

                "You'll die."

                "I had to. Besides, 'Death comes for us all', remember? What is life worth if it's not spent how we want, and with who we want it?" James took Al's hand and brought it to his cheek, then his lips. "I'm not letting go again."

                This time Al smiled, and as he did, the outer doors rushed open. And both boys rushed to cover their eyes. For the first time they felt the heat of the sun, stood blinded in its light. The world beckoned. Arm in arm, Al and James walked out into the expanse, a void untouched by man or indeed any other life since long before either of them were born.

                They looked at each other, and despite the bleakness, they laughed. Perhaps all this brand new world had to offer them was death, a wasteland. But even so…

                …they faced that death together.