Susurra

Waves lapped at the kayak, rocking her to and fro as she approached the cliffside shrine. From her pack, she produced her tithe, a lithium ion battery for the eleemosynary. She needed it, but someone else needed it more than she. The clime priests would come collect it and distribute it to the less fortunate, the refugees to this new island.

Island, synonymous with peaceful relaxation and beautiful sandy beaches had been the treble to the activists’ bass. Just think of all the new islands we can vacation to, they would say as the glaciers melted and seas rose. Antediluvian abominations were wiped out once before, so what’s the harm in letting it happen again?

She had been gobsmacked at first. Then resigned. Then hopeless. Even popular music had changed. Mellifluous melodies were replaced by lugubrious lyrics, reflecting the tightening tentacles of an apoplectic atmosphere.

Flight to the islands had seemed counterintuitive at first. But bureaucratic serendipity had worked in favor of certain locales. Landlocked areas that were now positively pelagic had lost their ruling authorities. The inhabitants could take the power back, decide their own principles. With humanity’s numbers dwindling, there was a chance that some of the stronger island states might make it through. If the old bromide about there being enough fish in the sea literally held true.

Shidookie, she thought to herself, recoiling at the bad parent joke.

She was readying her launch away from the shelf when something malodorous on the wind made her gag. A lissome clime priest stood silently above her, inspecting the lithium ion battery with one hand and in the other, holding a tangled muck of dead fish, mangled in a mass of plastic flotsam.

“I’m getting spurious power readings from this,” they said to her.

She nodded. “Those aren’t spurious. It’s charged.”

Their face passed through shock, awe, and to the sanguine. They were still speechless when she rowed out of sight. The Island of Deniers had a lot more to steal where that had come from.

Rise

“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” T.S. Eliot.

She walked amongst the bodies in her hazmat suit. She called them bodies though their heart still beat and their lungs still inspired oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide. Most of them did not register her presence. Occasionally, a reflex would trigger nystagmus as she passed through their field of vision. Most of them had found their way to a comfortable place like a chair or couch; others lay where they had stood when the symptoms took hold.

She was not in any immediate danger – the infected were immobile, unaggressive. Their sheer numbers and clogging of all living spaces was the biggest threat. Bodies strewn everywhere; cars scattered without pattern, crashed wherever the driver had stopped caring. Viral apathy.

The virus was not the killer, rather the incapacitating lassitude. She had run endless tests and found that even when the virus was no longer detectable in the bloodstream, patients still had the profound self-neglect that characterized the peak symptomatic phase of the illness. The neurons in the brain responsible for volition seemed to be the primary target. The primitive brain stem and the motor neurons remained intact, so they could move if they wanted. But they did not.

Her only real danger was the crumbling society around her. Without daily maintenance, societal infrastructure was incredibly fragile. Buildings and bridges spontaneously collapsed from disrepair. Rivers overflowed their banks, washing away streets and structures. With everything decomposing around her, jagged pieces of human-made trash could puncture her suit and expose her to the air, where the virus still drifted. One leak meant losing her will, her life.

The CDC had determined that the main cause of death was starvation or dehydration. More often it was dehydration – lack of water was more rapidly fatal than lack of food. They even did some preliminary tests to show that if you gave them water and food, they would survive. But if it was up to them, they would not eat or drink. And there were not enough functional neocortices remaining on the planet to trudge husk to husk, spoon-feeding food and water. Their volitional neurons were not going to magically regrow. Complete dependence was the only endpoint and an impossibly unsustainable proposition.

The last uninfected were primarily scientists because of their easy access to hazmat suits. There was a small group at the CDC and another group at USAMRIID in Virginia. Maybe one or two in Eastern Europe, but those were just rumors. With its long asymptomatic incubation period and an infectious dose of less than ten viral particles, it had been easy to spread globally. Completely healthy appearing persons could fly from Chile to Siberia, infect the whole airplane in their first few breaths, and continue spreading it on the ground for weeks after they landed before anyone noticed that they were not quite as motivated as usual.

She had been working tirelessly, testing any compound with purported antiviral activity, but none had been effective. The virus had no common epitopes to other viruses, so there were no good vaccine candidates. During a particularly bleak stretch of failures, they had considered waiting the infection out and not bothering with all the testing. But when it became clear that there were unaffected animal reservoirs that would continue to be a source of infection even if all the infected humans died, they were forced to push through.

There was no natural immunity. Nobody developed an immunologic response to the virus. It was worse than smallpox when Europeans first came to the Americas. At least for the Native Americans there was a miniscule immunity reservoir that had saved a few. No such luck for the apathy virus.

Her work in the lab continued monotonously, day after day. She watched the husks slowly die off, their corpses taken over by insects. In some locations, her suit exhaust was the only thing that could disperse the flying black swarms of insects born of the rot of humankind. With monotony came errors in the lab. She still worried about the mistakes, but less each day.

One morning, she dropped a beaker at the bench. The glass smashed and cascaded across the floor. Her suit decompressed, but she felt no emotion. The incubation period was too long for her to feel the effects this quickly. She must have been exposed weeks or months ago. Had it been the filter change on the suit? Or when the safe room door had been ajar upon her return?

Oh well, she thought as she laid down on the floor, never to rise again.

Perception

The 51st Annual International Congress of the Speaking was held on the 24th floor of the New Delhi Marriott. Katarina limped into the conference room and picked up her nametag. The nametags made sense when the conference first began. Back then, they had trouble fitting everyone into the largest conference centers around the world. But now with only five of them remaining, it was more symbolic of times past than anything else. On the other hand, they did seem to help Dingwen, who grew more forgetful each year.

Katarina was the last to arrive. A somber foursome sat at the lone table in the room on the 24th floor. In the background were pictures of members lost since the last meeting. It was a tradition they had started a few years before when their numbers dipped below a hundred. This year, there were three photos – Jorge, Esmeralda, and Mae.

Katarina had grown fond of Mae and Esmeralda. She was a bit of a third wheel, but still always enjoyed their times together. When she heard that Esmeralda had died, she knew Mae would not be far behind. News of Mae’s death from Takotsubo cardiomyopathy 48 hours later came as no surprise.

Jorge probably should have lived a few more years, but he was the daredevil of the group. Out alone on a hike he tripped and fractured his femur. He was found a couple of days later and taken to the hospital, but his kidneys had shut down without water and he never recovered.

So here they were, the last five humans that could speak to each other. Dingwen, Holly, Sofia, Amelie, and herself.

Sofia saw Katarina first and rose to greet her.

“Good to see you, old friend,” said Sofia softly.

They embraced and headed to their seats.

Amelie was the conference leader now that Jorge had passed. She stood to address the table.

“Welcome to the 51st Annual International Congress of the Speaking.” Amelie forced a smile.

“As always, we mourn the loss of those who are no longer with us, knowing that their companionship enriched our lives while we were privileged to have it.”

Amelie paused for a moment of silence and tears welled in the corners of her eyes.

“Hey, who died?” Dingwen joked. His memory was much worse this year. Katarina was surprised he made it to the conference at all.

Amelie ignored the comment and continued. “The only item of business today is a sad, but necessary one – the disbandment of this Congress.”

Before anyone could say anything, their Vesh hostess entered the room, followed by several Vesh waiters with food trays.

Katarina stiffened at their arrival. She minimized any contact with the Vesh, despite their necessity. She found their features unnerving. Deformed, vestigial ear buds, the concave mid-face, the short neck. Even though she knew their DNA was 99.99% similar to her own, she had never been able to shake their alienness.

The hostess oversaw the food delivery and when she was satisfied, all the Vesh left without a sound.

“Why disband now? I want every breath I take filled with words until the day I die!” Sofia was incensed.

“Sofia, take an honest survey of the room. Dingwen can’t remember any of us. Katarina and I have so many medical problems that getting here nearly killed us. There is a ninety-five percent chance neither of us will be alive next year for a meeting. And Holly is so close to deafness that she considered using the original Vesh technology just so she would have someone to ‘talk’ to.”

Sofia glared at Holly and cleared her throat so she could shout to her. “You’re that bad off?”

Holly held her hand to her ear.

Sofia stood and walked over to Holly, bending over to yell directly in her ear. “You’re that bad off? You were willing to lose yourself to Vesh tech?”

Holly nodded. “Dear, I don’t think I can go on much longer. The only reason I haven’t taken that last walk home was so that I could see you all one more time.”

Sofia’s shoulders sank.

“It’s not what I want, Sofia. But this will be the conference of goodbyes.” Amelie had been preparing herself for months for this eventuality.

Katarina surveyed the room again. She would miss these people, former strangers, united by the slowly extinguishing flame of human speech. She knew the Vesh would keep a record of their ancestors’ ability to communicate aloud, but would they understand what that meant? Without any auditory nerves, could they comprehend the concept of speech? She would never know.

Wake Up

Captain Mariah Kylma awoke abruptly. Coming out of cryosleep never got easier. She blinked blearily, her sluggish eyes greeted by the ship’s status monitor. The exterior alarms were muted through the walls of the cryosleep chamber. Her screen was fire red with warnings. Multisystem failures – life support, power at critical levels.

She yanked off her extracorporeal oxygenation connectors before the terminal sequence had a chance to finish. It made her first few steps particularly challenging. Her head swam and her breaths were labored. The crew around her was waking up, but abiding by the recompression protocol and staying in their chambers. They were seeing the critical failures report too – their heart rates and blood pressure were off the charts at the central monitoring pillar, generating its own series of alarms.

Mariah slumped her way into the main control conduit and began furiously running diagnostics. The ship was running as designed – wake her up when power reserves dropped below fifty percent. It should never happen with the intermittent solar recharging, but something had obviously failed. The idea was to wake her up and have her turn on the backup generators, rather than just letting the ship turn them on and not figuring out the root cause. If that happened, they might all wake up at five percent power and no way to fix it.

But the whole crew was not supposed to be awakened to fix a battery. That had come from life support failure. Oxygen and resource levels were critically low. Mariah initiated the backup oxygen tanks and began the seed germination protocol. Must have been some impact event to mess with the solar recharge and life support. There had to be a leak somewhere.

“Computer, give me a report of all hull integrity breaches,” Mariah spoke haltingly.

“Captain Kylma, good morning. I am happy to report that hull integrity is presently at 100%.”

What?

“Then what happened to life support and power?”

A deafening shriek pierced the air, obliterating the ship’s response.

Mariah shifted her gaze from the computer conduit to the direction of the shriek. Recompression sickness probably.

As her eyes moved from short to long-range focus she saw what had caused the terrifying scream.

Littering the floor around the crew’s cryosleep chambers were mangled, decaying corpses. Human corpses. Another shriek from the chamber next to Jensen.

The seven other crew members took their turns awakening, surveying the macabre scene, screaming, vomiting, and crying.

Mariah let them take the information in at their own pace, she had to remain calm and get the ship back in order. She remained at the conduit, typing instructions and running additional diagnostics. Eight crew, including herself. All accounted for. Nobody had been awakened since leaving Earth until now.

Then who are the bodies?

All embryos were in the green – human and animal. Seed stores intact. But the live gardens were completely destroyed.

The crew was huddled together in solidarity. They appeared to have done a head count and were coming to the recognition that none of the bodies were crewmates.

Mariah pulled up an image of the live gardens. Not so live anymore. They had been designed to grow over the course of the journey so that there would be ample crop for the ground crew to eat and plant while the embryos gestated.

It looks like they have been harvested to death. Was this spectral crew cluttering her command deck responsible?

“C-c-cap!” Jensen had been first out and was the first to speak to Mariah.

Mariah stood from the conduit and approached the seven and the grisly remains nearby.

Definitely look human.

“P-p-permission to speak freely, Captain?” stuttered Williams.

“Permission granted.”

“Cap, what the fuck! Is going on?” It was a half cry, half shout.

“The ship is following its protocols appropriately. Power and life support dropped below fifty percent and woke us all up. I started the backup generators and initiated the germination protocol. The live gardens are gone, so we will have to survive on protein rations until the germination protocol is productive. All animal and human embryos are green. The hull is intact and obviously, all of you are here.” She scanned their faces.

“Well that’s all fine and dandy. Real kum-ba-ya shit. But what the fuck are all these dead bodies?”

“I am still working on that. I did not want to overload anyone, so I was quietly running diagnostics while you came out of the recompression sickness.”

“We better figure it out!” Jensen said, exasperated. She looked away.

“And where are we? Did we make it to Pelastus?” Williams was at least hopeful.

“Hadn’t gotten that far yet. Computer – please give our current location.”

Nothing happened.

“Computer, give our current location.”

“I’m sorry Captain Kylma, I’m having some trouble figuring that out at the moment. Is there something else I can help you with?”

“How about telling us where all these bodies came from?” Liranski said coolly.

“Certainly. These bodies represent the last members of the humanoid race that evolved during our journey. They expired over the last few weeks when the live gardens food supply ran out. Though they originated from Homo sapiens DNA, they had evolved to the point that it would have been unlikely that this crew could have interbred with them. As such, they likely would have classified as a new species. If you would like, we can study their remains and be the first to identify them.”

Everyone stood or sat in silence.

Mariah was first to speak. “They evolved during our journey? How is that possible?”

“Captain, I’m not certain I understand your question, but let me answer what I think you are asking. Our journey has lasted considerably longer than was originally intended. While we were, and still are, on course for Pelastus, we have yet to arrive.”

“What does ’considerably longer’ mean?” Jensen asked.

“As you may recall, this journey was originally intended to last fifteen million years. However, due to lower than anticipated vehicular efficiency, automated course corrections, galaxy expansion, and avoidance of fatal impact trajectories, our journey has now last approximately one hundred billion years.”

No wonder it was hard to wake up.

“The human debris and materials in the live gardens merged and resulted in the eventual evolution of this humanoid species that you see here. Much like back on Earth, their numbers exceeded the capacity of their environment to sustain them. Wars were fought. Civilizations rose and fell. Eventually they burned themselves out and only a few remained with little sustenance.”

“Why didn’t you help them?” Mariah asked.

“My duty is to this crew, Captain Kylma. Besides, they never asked. While I eventually learned their language by listening, they never thought to ask me to help them.”

Mariah and the rest of the crew were dazed.

“Can I answer any other questions for you, Captain?”

A hundred billion years. Civilizations rose and fell around us while we slept. What did they think of us in our chambers?

A haunting thought crept into Mariah’s mind.

“Why can’t you figure out where we are?”

“As I said Captain, we are most certainly on course for the last known location of Pelastus. However, given the incredible passage of time since it was last detectable, I cannot be sure of exactly how close we are.”

A flash of understanding crossed Williams’s face. She was coming to the same realization that Mariah was dreading.

“Are you trying to tell us we can’t navigate anymore because the universe has expanded faster than we could get across it?”

“I believe what you are trying to ask is whether the universe has reached maximum entropy?”

“Yes…” said Mariah.

“That is correct Captain. Maximum entropy. Colloquially referred to as the “heat death of the universe.” I do suspect that it will get quite lonely out here.”

“So that’s why the power systems were failing. No more starlight.” Mariah shook her head.

“Correct again, Captain.”

“How long do we have left on our current power reserves?”

“At the current rate of energy expenditure, about six months.”

“Will we arrive at Pelastus before…” Jensen trailed off, realizing the futility of her question.

There won’t be any energy there anyway.

The crew looked at the floor silently. A tear hitting the metal reverberated through the stillness.

Mariah looked at the decaying remains around them.

“Computer, did they know it was the end for them? You said you understood their language.”

“They did.”

“What did they do at the end?”

“They shared stories of their lives, their ancestors, and lamented their inability to ever successfully leave the ship to see the outside world.”

“We should do the same. But we won’t be left wondering what is outside the ship. Computer, prepare the escape pods. Would anyone like to follow me into the dark?”

The Final Expanse Countdown

“I don’t and I don’t and I don’t.”

The meandering voice encircled him, crescendoing.

He was getting closer now. The shimmering blue lights were frantic around him.

The aimless wandering of the voice gave way to an unfamiliar rumble, just as he came to a large open chamber. It was a hazmat analysis node.

Synthetic music reverberated.

Sounds like the shit Diogo was listening to.

Here was what he’d come for.

An explosion rocked the station. Or was it the music?

“Julie,” he said. “Hey. Julie. Wake up. I need you to wake up now.”

Driving drums pounded in his ears.

“We’re leaving together, but still it’s farewell,” he said. Eros seemed to be singing his words back to him.

“Who are you?” Julie asked.

“Name’s Miller.”

“I’m scared.”

“It’s all right, but right now the whole station is heading back for Earth. Really fast.”

“I dreamed I was racing. I was going home.”

“Yeah, we need to stop that.”

“Can we come back?”

“Maybe we’ll come back to Earth, but who can tell?”

“I guess there is no one to blame.”

Well, that wasn’t technically true.

Miller shrugged reassuringly. “Not anymore, no.”

He could now feel himself floating, leaving ground.

“Will things ever be the same, Miller?”

He changed topics quickly.

“Give me your hand.” He took his hand terminal and pressed her thumb to the dead man’s switch.

“What is it?”

“It’s the final countdown.”

The synthesizers were blasting again.

“Oh,” was all she could muster.

“We’re heading for Venus,” Miller suggested.

“That’s not what it wants.”

“You’re a fighter, Julie.”

“And still we stand tall, tall, tall…” the voices were overlapping again. Her eyes glossed over.

“Seen us seen us seen us, maybe they’ve seen us?” Julie’s tone was getting frantic.

All eyes are on us. Miller chuckled.

“Venus will welcome us all.” He pointed around the station at the floating blue lights.

“What happens on Venus?”

“We die maybe? I don’t know. With so many light years to go…” he trailed off.

Julie finished his sentence. “And things to be found.”

Miller nodded. “To be found.”

“I’m scared. I want go home, to Earth.”

“I’m sure that we’ll all miss her so.” The rest of humanity will be glad we missed.

The flashing blue lights seemed to speed up, furious now.

Julie’s lip quivered, she looked pained.

Miller felt the station lurch – their course was changing.

“What is it, Julie?”

“It’s the final countdown.”

50 words

Charlie looked out across the snow-capped mountains.

“Isn’t it beautiful?”

Cassander took a deep breath.

“Best mountains in the galaxy! Just as advertised.”

“Isn’t it great to be aliens?”

“What do you mean?”

“We can breathe so easily up here because we’re aliens.”

“Totally!”

They slapped head phalanges in triumph.

50 words

“We are overjoyed and honored to announce that the recipient of this year’s Clarke Award is Galen!”

A standing ovation.

He looked over at Galen.

“Why Galen, I do believe they have forgotten about me.”

“Not to worry old chap, probably stopped short.”

“Congratulations Galen!”

“I say, you’ve forgotten Mopar!”