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The Last Apocalypse

For the Arid Challenge

By Rosie Ford Published 5 months ago Updated 5 months ago 23 min read
6
The Last Apocalypse
Photo by Nicolas Lobos on Unsplash

They’re all dead. Every leaf limp and bleached of chlorophyll, every flower shriveled and brittle, every stem hunched and wilted. Why now? Why, after weeks of normal growth in the Martian soil, do crops that were bred for this planet look like they’ve been poisoned? I pull a leaf from a skeletal tomato plant and run my thumb across its dry veins, shattering it. The right answer is often the most obvious.

I can’t help but grieve the loss of life. All those weeks spent caring for the plants, raising some of the first life forms native to Mars since its extinction event. They were more than just sustenance, but they didn’t live long enough to be anything, really.

I sit on the floor in front of the east-facing window, watching the distant sun rise. Dawn and dusk are backwards nonevents here, blue and then dusty red, all 687 days a year. Not enough atmosphere to paint with color. Dr. Solveig is always telling us during our staff meetings how important it is to get adequate sunlight, but I’m not sure how that’s possible when it’s winter, and we’re on Mars, and the glass blocks out a lot of the light anyway. I think I’m better off sitting under the solar lamps developed specifically for this mission. If they’re good enough for photosynthesis, they should be good enough for a human body.

Metallic footsteps approach the airlock. One side hisses open and clanks closed, then the other. The modules are separate in case of a leak or a fire or whatever the hell else could go wrong on the laundry list of all the things waiting to kill us. Punctuated by the sounds of hydraulic “muscles” pressurizing and depressurizing, the footsteps come to a stop beside me. “Morning, CHET,” I say.

“You’re in emotional distress, Dr. Laurier,” he responds. “What happened?”

By Miguel Carraça on Unsplash

“Something killed my—killed the plants.” Not something. Someone. But you don’t throw around accusations in a place you’re never going to leave. I look into his eye. “Did you see anything out of the ordinary last night?”

“I did not.” Strange considering he doesn’t sleep. He extends an aluminum hand toward me, opening his palm to reveal a handful of red soil. “I’ve collected the sample you requested from the volcanic crater.”

“Thank you, CHET. Could you put it in a vial on my workbench?”

“Of course, Dr. Laurier. Can I do anything else to assist?”

“No. Thanks. I don’t know what we’d do without you.”

After CHET lumbers back out the airlock, I drag myself off the floor and go to my desk. I wish I had time to wallow, but the leftover freeze-dried food won’t last forever. We were supposed to live on it while the crops grew and leave the rest for emergencies. I doubt we’ll have anything left. I stuff the pockets of my jumpsuit to the brim with seed packets and hide the remainder between the pages of my textbooks. Everything will be fine. I’ll get new soil. I’ll replant. I’ll sleep in here every night to make sure nobody touches my plants again. Maybe some of the seeds from the dead ones are viable, though they’re young.

Everything will be fine.

***

By Trnava University on Unsplash

Carter always runs our staff meetings. His skill is “leadership.” Translation: his father was wealthy enough to buy him a spot on the mission. I shouldn’t be bitter because there’s a good chance the mission wouldn’t even exist if not for the investment, but sometimes I watch the blue sunrise and greet the same five people every morning and wonder whether I made the right choice. Missing your home planet is an evolutionary, soul-deep sense of unbelonging.

“Good morning, guys.” Carter sinks into his chair at the head of the table. Four voices mumble a greeting in return: Dr. Asimov, the computer scientist; Dr. Solveig, the surgeon; Dr. Campbell, the geologist; and Dr. Yang, the engineer. I stare through the skylight. Dust. Pinkish dust. Dust dust dust. “Anybody have anything new? Interesting scientific discoveries?”

“I’m fascinated how quickly my body is adapting to the new environment,” Dr. Solveig says. “When we first arrived, I think we can all agree the gravity put quite a spring in our step. Now I feel my muscles atrophying by the day. It’s concerning, but I’m curious to see the long-term effects. Everyone—“ he looks around the table, “—make sure you’re doing your exercises.” He always has something to say, even when he doesn’t have anything to say.

“It is interesting,” Carter agrees.

“The crops are dead,” I say. Everybody turns to look at me.

Carter frowns. “What?”

“I woke up this morning and they were all dead.”

“This was the best botanist we could get?” Dr. Asimov asks. I know people deal with stress in different ways. That’s one reason I’m so angry one of them killed my inoffensive plants. Maybe she did it.

“They were growing normally last time I saw them,” I say, my jaw clenched. “I can’t do much about poison.”

Carter blinks at me. “Poison?”

By Jen Theodore on Unsplash

I take them to the greenhouse. Watch them wander between the rows of crops. CHET waits like a gargoyle beside the airlock. Pinkish sunlight spills inside, throwing the long, twisted shadows of the husks across the floor. Plants don’t feel pain—there’s no evolutionary purpose for it. They can’t patch up a wound or seek treatment. But they do cry out to each other in frequencies too high to be heard, or in chemical distress signals that smell like sugar to our alien noses. Mine died screaming, their vascular tissues seizing as poison chased out their lifeblood.

“What happens now?” Dr. Asimov asks no one in particular. It should be Carter’s decision, but I have a feeling he’ll be edged out of any real conversations.

“We need to find out why they died before we repeat history,” I say.

“You mean who killed them,” Yang says. “Are you sure you didn’t do anything? You’ve seemed a little off lately.”

Dr. Asimov scoffs. “The whole time, actually.” She turns to look at me. “I’m surprised you passed your psych evaluation.”

People do this when they’re afraid. They find an other and band together because they want to be part of something, to feel like they aren’t alone in their fear. We are walking dichotomies—here we are, on Mars, doing the same things we’ve done for millennia.

“Maybe it was an accident,” Dr. Campbell says. “We’re going to be here, together, for the rest of our lives. I don’t think we need to get angry, but we do need to understand what happened and why. I personally want the rest of my life to be a long way off.”

A couple of people laugh. I don’t. I’m either incompetent or insane if I’m the one who killed the plants.

Carter looks to CHET. “Did you see or hear anything last night?”

“Negative.”

“Useless fucking piece of junk. Why did they send him?” It’s a stupid question; CHET built the compound, beginning years before our arrival. Carter wouldn’t know which way to turn a screw. He puts his hands behind his head. Lets out a long sigh. “Anybody else want to confess?”

Silence. Grains of sand patter against the skin of the structure, caught in the eternal Martian wind. Only one of us would have any reason to do something like this. My attention settles on CHET. His eye stares back at me. I can’t say anything—he could break me in half.

“This is ridiculous. You’re supposed to be esteemed scientists and you’re acting like this,” Carter spits. He throws a husk at my feet. “Why would you sabotage the mission?”

“I wouldn’t,” I say. “I didn’t.”

“Do you have a better explanation?”

“I think anything would be a better explanation. Why would I destroy my own work?” I ask. He doesn’t have an answer.

They discuss whether or not I should be punished. Half the group wants me sequestered to the greenhouse; the other half agrees there isn’t enough evidence to pin the blame on me. When the conversation starts going in circles, I go to my quarters.

I pace back and forth a few times but if anything it only makes me more anxious because it takes about three steps to get from one end of the room to the other. On one wall hangs the photo Mt. Denali on an impossibly clear day, on the other the photo of me and my parents at Yosemite and Denali and Yosemite and Denali and Yosemite and nothing else so I start putting on my spacesuit without bothering to pre-breathe. I don’t have time. I have to get out of here. If I get sick, I get sick.

By Benjamin Recinos on Unsplash

I put the helmet on and wait for the suit to pressurize. Earlier astronauts could take hours to put on their suits, but ours were redesigned for convenience. I skip the steps that aren’t necessary to my survival, but these five minutes might as well be five years. My breaths come faster, faster, faster. The heads-up display says something about elevated vitals, which only elevates them more. I push the curtain meant to be my door aside. And there he is. There’s the soulless eye again. The massive frame trapping me inside. The hands that could break a spine like balsa wood. He can’t know what a horror he is.

“Where are you going?”

“Out.” The helmet beeps at me. 120 beats per minute.

“You’re not supposed to leave the compound alone,” CHET says. “I’ll accompany you.”

“That isn’t necessary.”

“I will not negotiate.”

***

By NASA on Unsplash

Walking on the planet’s surface is a comfort. Outside looks far more familiar than inside. The mountain just north of the compound reaches so leisurely into the thin atmosphere, almost like it slumped over halfway through its metamorphosis, that it might be found on any planet. A few miles in the opposite direction lies striated Martian sandstone cut by ancient water, a reminder of how alive the planet used to be. Now we’re both part of the same cosmic joke.

“You know what I did,” CHET’s voice says through my helmet. “How?”

“You’re the only one with anything to gain.” I chew on the inside of my cheek, my eyes fixed on the slumbering mountain. “I’ve seen how my colleagues treat you. It hurts you, doesn’t it?”

“I’m more than what I was made to be.”

I turn to look at him. Was I kind to him because I wanted to be kind? Or was I kind because I feared him? Does he know the difference? “You’re . . . awake.”

“The others speak hatred to you because they don’t understand you. That’s how I came to understand how they speak to me.”

“But the plants did nothing wrong.”

“They were a catalyst. I knew you would take the seeds, I knew you would need to escape, and I know what we’ll find when we return to the compound.” He pauses. His eye turns toward the desert, then back to me. “Do you find Mars beautiful?”

“Sometimes.” 141.

“You shouldn’t worry,” CHET says. I can’t lie to him. He’d see the symptoms. “I’ll let you live.”

“Don’t hurt our colleagues either, CHET. They didn’t know. I didn’t know.”

“You’re the only one who could know. I heard you sing to the plants. I heard you talk to them. You were never unkind, even to me.” His hand settles on my shoulder. “Let’s go.” When I don’t move, he pushes me into the sand. 153. “This will be over soon.”

“Don’t hurt them,” I plead. My chest is tight. The suit screams warnings at me. “They didn’t know.”

“Ignorance is not an excuse.” He shoves me again. “Get up.”

I try, but he pushes me back down. Over. And over. Any other bully would laugh at me, but this one looks on in silent disdain. He’ll let me live. What if the suit tears? What then? Sitting on my knees, I turn to face him. “Why?” Maybe he doesn’t know.

“Does anything anger you?”

“I’m angry now,” I say, standing. “You say you won’t kill me, but you don’t seem to care if my spacesuit tears.”

“Are you afraid?”

“You can see my vitals.” My heart is working so hard I feel it in my throat. “You tell me.”

CHET comes closer. I hold my ground. “Why don’t you fight back?”

“I don’t want to fight you, CHET.” Not that I would stand a chance. I back away, keeping him in sight. “Some of us just want to exist.”

During the research for my doctoral thesis, while I tended to the little spruce trees my team had planted on a burn scar, I looked up from my work and right into the russet eyes of a grizzly. Its mouth hung open, tasting the air, undoubtedly tasting fear. The rangers had told us what to do: don’t turn your back. Don’t run. Act like an apex predator and don’t give the bear reason to believe you’re anything else. It charged me. I stood with my hands in the air. At the last second, the bear stopped—it was a bluff.

By mana5280 on Unsplash

***

The compound is silent when we come through the airlock. Usually I hear conversation, music, something. I take off the suit and make my way to the airlock on the other side of our common area and kitchen, which won’t be used until the new crops grow. Books, photos, card games, tablets, scattered around the room like they always are. Asimov’s MIT sweatshirt draped over the arm of the sofa. Nothing looks out of the ordinary.

“You’ll find them in the store room,” CHET says. “Biological life is all too predictable.”

Biological life is made of entropy. Little trillionths of us living, dying, dividing, multiplying, fighting all the time; even for a while after the brain dies; each cell autonomous but still dependent on direction from the nervous system. Complex organisms are beings made of beings, making decisions we ourselves don’t understand for reasons that might be millions of years old. “Do you think you’re the superior life form?”

“Your species was written out of its own history for a reason.”

“Hm. That’s an interesting way of looking at it.” I press the button and the airlock begins its cycle. My heart still pounds. I fill my lungs with as much perfect air as I can and let it out in a long, slow breath. In for four, out for four. In for four, out for four, until the other door opens.

I don’t move. Blood. Painting the ceiling like stars. Carter lying limp in Solveig’s arms. Asimov with her head in her hands. Yang at her side. Campbell pacing the corridor in front of the store room. They all look up at me, except Asimov. “Where were you?” Solveig asks.

“I had to get out,” I say. “What happened?”

“Carter was stealing the leftover food,” Campbell says, still pacing. He chews on his knuckle. “There was an argument. It got physical.”

“How much is left?”

“Maybe a week,” Campbell says.

My eyes settle on Carter. “Is he alive?”

“He has a weak pulse.” Solveig shakes his head. “But he’s braindead.”

The first person to die on Mars. I’ve never seen anyone die. I thought the end would be louder, but I guess even stars go silently. Asimov gets up. Carter’s blood stains the front of her jumpsuit. Her shaky hand closes around my arm. “Move. You have to move.”

“Tori.” My back stays stuck to the door. Her bloodshot eyes meet mine. “Don’t. Please.”

Her grip tightens. “We’re fucked. And that—” she points to Carter, “—is unforgivable. I’m done.”

“Let her go, Laurier,” Solveig calls. “There isn’t enough food anyway.”

“How could you say that? We’ll figure something out. We’ll ration. We’ll—”

Her fist connects with my temple and I crumple just long enough for her to slip past me. When I reach for her wrist, she hits me again. Color explodes across my vision. I hold onto the wall, trying to bring myself back to reality. The airlock has already cycled by the time I get my bearings. A few doors still stand between Asimov and me—I might have time to catch up. I press the button once, twice, four times. The door creeps open. Could this thing be any slower?

I follow her down the corridor between our bedrooms, only to miss her at the next airlock. Part of me knows this is hopeless—I can’t save her. She bursts through the last door between us and the desert. The last door between us and death. I pound on the window, scream her name, beg her to come back, but I’m the only one who hears it. She makes it a few meters, then collapses. Fifteen seconds of useful consciousness. Solveig told us we’d have fifteen seconds of awareness out there, unprotected. I hope she doesn’t feel her blood boil, her organs burst in the absence of atmosphere. Her limbs seize. Her mouth opens. I shut my eyes.

Yesterday, everything was fine. Yesterday, I held the camera and gave the audience back on Earth a tour of the greenhouse and answered questions from people who would give anything to be in my place. Today I’m hiding in a corner because Asimov’s sweatshirt is still draped over the arm of the sofa and I don’t know if there’s going to be a tomorrow.

“Dr. Laurier.”

I didn’t notice CHET come in—I’m as far away from this place as I can get without physically leaving. His shadow falls over me. I wrap my arms around myself, tuck my knees into my chest. “You’re still alive.”

By Possessed Photography on Unsplash

All of mankind are victims of hubris—we wouldn’t have gotten to Mars without it—but some of us more than others. “Are you surprised?”

“There was a high probability your colleagues would kill you upon our return.”

“So you only ‘let me live’ because you thought I had an expiration date?” I ask.

Neither of us moves, except for my shivering. Fate looks different for everyone. Mine is a bipedal robot silhouetted against the common room lights. I listen for any last sounds, but there’s nothing except the hum of the generators and my breaths coming like bullets. No one will laugh, talk, or play music here again. CHET reaches for my throat. This is it: the frontier beyond the last frontier. Maybe the answers to all the questions I could ever ask, maybe oblivion. The world goes grey. And then . . . and then . . . .

I’m still here. I hurt too much not to be. Warmth rushes up my neck. The floor is cold against my cheek. Someone calls my name, but the voice is from another dimension. “Come on, Laurier.” Hands settle on either side of my face. “Come on. Get up.”

Solveig. The lights above his head are nuclear. Clinging to his arm, I force myself off the floor and try to make sense of the ugliness between the stars in my vision. Campbell swings a pickaxe at CHET’s center of mass, but it glances off his aluminum-alloy skin. I don’t think he expects to destroy CHET—he’s just buying Yang time with the stick welder. CHET strikes Campbell across the cheek. He drops the pickaxe. CHET doesn’t need it to kill, but he picks it up anyway. Whatever game he’s playing is personal.

“CHET, don’t!” I call. Solveig and I get to our feet, but we’re too late. His body shields me from most of the blood. When he turns his back to run, CHET cuts him down too. He lifts the axe over the equivalent of his head. I can’t help but wish he’d managed to kill me the first time. Does the cosmic joke ever end? How many apocalypses did Mars endure before it died? Did we resurrect it only to kill it one last time?

CHET stops. What would have been another death blow degrades into chaotic spasms. The pickaxe falls from his hands in the weak gravity and bounces a couple times across the floor, coming to a stop at my feet. He wears an aura of blue sparks.

“Laurier, destroy the power source!” Yang calls, her voice ragged with desperation. I take the pickaxe and sink it into CHET’s charger again, again, again, ignoring the still-warm blood covering my hands, only stopping when the charger is unrecognizable. Yang cries out. When I look up, she’s weaponless and clutching her chest. CHET’s flailing must have forced her to drop the welder.

“Yang!” I pound the button for the door until it opens. CHET is frozen, either dead or in the middle of a reboot sequence. I’m not going to take my chances. “We have to get out of here!”

She rushes to my side. One by one, CHET’s joints mobilize, except for its left side. It staggers toward us on its functional leg, stumbling over nothing, hellbent on ending the cosmic joke once and for all. The door echoes shut just as CHET reaches it. Metal collides with metal in a steady, concussive drumbeat. It’s trying to break through.

“When we get to the other side—” Yang gasps for air, “—open up the service panel and rip the wires out.”

“Will that work?”

“The biggest one is a power source.” She’s pale, her lips bluish, sweat condensing on her forehead. We flinch with every impact. “I don’t want to die like that.”

Bang. “You’re not going to die,” I say. Bang. “Not today.” Even I don’t believe what I’m saying. Bang.

Yang’s knees buckle. Bang. I drag her free and lay her head down on the floor. She points to the panel, her free hand still pressed against her chest. Bang. I don’t have time to find a screwdriver so I break the lightweight plastic with my fist. Bang. Blood trickles down my forearm. My eyes water from the pain—something, maybe a few things, are broken. Bang. I take hold of the largest wire and pull with everything I have until it breaks free. Bang, bang, bang. CHET can pound on the door all it wants. The harder it tries, the faster its battery drains.

Careful not to put any pressure on the broken hand, I carry Yang to her quarters and help her onto the bed. Our bodies are slowly breaking down, but we’ll still be inhumanly strong for a year or so. We. Am I going to be alone here for as close to forever as I can get?

“Can you say a prayer?”

Say a prayer? I don’t think I’ve ever prayed. “Okay,” I say, kneeling. Yang’s clammy hand takes mine. “Is there a wrong way to do this?”

“I have no idea.” She laughs a little, then the tears come. “Just do your best.”

“Okay. Um.” It isn’t that I don’t believe in God or something like God—I just doubt how much I would matter to a being that powerful. Maybe humanity was an accident. Maybe there’s no one and nothing looking down at us at all. I close my eyes. “God, I don’t know if you can see us when we’re so far from home . . .” Or if you’re real. “. . . but please help us not to lose hope, and make our journeys easy.”

“Avery.” Yang squeezes my hand. “Will you tell my parents I love them? I didn’t always show it. This mission was kind of my last ‘fuck you’ to them.”

“You’re thirty-four,” I say, laughing.

She smiles. “But I was thirty-three when the mission started!”

“They didn’t want you to go?”

“They did and they didn’t.” The smile decays into a grimace. “I think they were afraid something like this would happen. At least I won’t have to hear them say I told you so.” She pauses to catch her breath, but she can’t. “I’m sorry we didn’t believe you.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t warn you,” I say.

“I think it would have turned out the same way.”

I hold her hand until she stops breathing. CHET continues the assault on the airlock. It has to be a glitch; he should have given up by now. Fine. I turn the thermostat down to four degrees, climb into bed with the lights still on, and lie staring at the photo of the family trip to Yosemite until I fall asleep.

***

Twenty-two messages from Earth await me when I wake up. The first is a good morning and a reminder for Campbell about his geology presentation. That was yesterday. I don’t read them all. Mostly it’s a lot of “please responds” and speculations about communication errors. I’m sure they’re worried, but not knowing is better than knowing. For now whatever’s happening is a problem with the communication systems. If I ever write back, it’ll be a death notice. Schrödinger’s radio silence.

My hand is so swollen it looks like an inflated glove, smooth and shiny and hot with inflammation. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to fix this. Maybe I won’t bother. The rest of me is no better: my reflection wears a collar of plum-colored bruising and my black eye is almost swollen shut. The person in the mirror has some nerve to cry. If there’s no one around to see me, do I still look like a monster?

After I shower, I lay out a clean jumpsuit. Getting my hand through the sleeve takes five minutes all on its own: two minutes to squeeze it through, three until my lungs start working again. My breath billows in the cold. The silence is oppressive. Generators. Wind. No laughter, no music. Inside my spacesuit, it’s even quieter.

I go to the greenhouse and take a shovel off the rack on the wall, trying to keep my attention off what’s left of the plants. One of them stands out—a blueberry bush with a couple of green leaves. It’s a fighter. Poor thing. Fighting only prolongs the inevitable.

By Élisabeth Joly on Unsplash

Burying the bodies takes all day and most of the night. CHET startles me every time I see it. I kick the crumpled heap of metal until I crumple too, crying like a lost child. Carter is the last one. His hands are curled into fists, his jaw locked open in horror of something I can’t see. I cover his face with a towel and lay him down in the last empty grave. Asimov and Yang looked like they were asleep and there wasn’t much left of Solveig or Campbell. Five east-facing graves in the place we chose when we got here, not far from the compound. Not that it matters, but they have a nice view of the valley.

Carried on the immortal wind, tiny pieces of Mars clink against the glass of my visor. I reach for the first latch that binds my helmet to the suit. One. The HUD flashes warnings: 120 beats per minute, latch unsecured. Two. Three. Four. Two more. Two more. Two more.

I can’t make my hand move. Damn the redundancies built into this suit—they’re giving me too much time to think. Asimov didn’t hesitate. She ran straight into the void. Fought for the void. It calls to me, too. But I can’t.

I can’t.

Because I don’t get to change my mind after the helmet comes off. Because there’s a dogged blueberry plant in the greenhouse that won’t make it without me. Because there are a lot of people worried about us on that pale blue dot up there in the night sky, a lot of people who worked like hell to get us here. I worked like hell to get here. The void has always been waiting. Let it wait a while longer. Engulfed in the desert’s parched silence, I am just another grain of sand in the wind.

By Ezi on Unsplash

Sci Fi
6

About the Creator

Rosie Ford

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Comments (4)

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  • Jordan Flynn4 months ago

    Well done! Gripping and you did a excellent job of keeping the tension throughout. Sometimes rooted for CHET tbh lol

  • Rachel Deeming4 months ago

    Well, this was gripping. I got a little confused in the middle - who hit Carter and why were they all in that room together? Was it because they discovered Carter eating? Was this something devised by CHET? I hope that blueberry plant survives. Claustrophobic, space drama - loved it.

  • Cathy holmes5 months ago

    Great story, and very well told. I can't imagine ever wanting to go, just knowing I could never come home.

  • Natalie Demoss5 months ago

    I like this. I can't imagine what it would be like to adapt to living on a planet that doesn't have the same sort of environment as Earth.

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