Karen Walker had been in the malodorous gravity chamber for almost an hour, gradually dialing up to an unpleasant 0.8 Earths as she pounded the cross-trainer. She was pushing it, but not too hard, careful after what happened to Rashford.
Her straw-colored hair was dripping and her vest ringed with dark sweat marks when she finally gave in and stopped. Passive conditioning time now in the tiny, mildewed Alu-foil chamber. She sat, dialing the crushing simulated gravity up to full Earth.
Karen closed her eyes and let her heartbeat slow, drifting as she tuned into to the familiar bass note of the engine, but the call was weighing on her more than the shuddering fake gravity; it couldn’t be put off. She powered up her screen, half hoping the connection would fail.
It didn’t fail, and soon enough there was Rob filling the screen, chubby and unshaven in his plaid pajamas, leaning against the head-board of their bed. The mundane slice of home was, as always, unsettling. More so as Earth grew in the viewer.
Rob blinked and rubbed his eyes, yawning hugely as though he had been asleep, laying it on. It was late evening in California, and Rob, she knew, always read till well after midnight. Everything he did lately seemed to have an edge to it, some little dig to demonstrate how her choices made things difficult for him. And for Marie.
She made herself smile. “Hello, hon. Good to see you.”
The delay was down two minutes now, so she didn’t have long to wait till he responded with a grunt. She had to stall, though, to make sure that was all she was getting out of him. This was going to be a tough one, she could tell, the sulky expression on his face. She forced an upbeat tone.
“How’s our girl?”
He shrugged, “Marie’s really struggling with a bunch of stuff just now. Don’t want to go into on the airwaves. The glossies still want any angle they can get on the glamor girl of space. Bastards are probably listening in right now.”
She was sitting forward, anxious now, wanting to ask about Marie, but Rob was still talking about the press and their interest in her. “Not that they all think you’re Doctor Fantastic. A mother who would leave her own child for three years.”
And just like that, she was defending herself instead of talking about Marie. “Wait now, this is something we talked and talked about. The biggest decision of our lives. You were with me all the way, remember?”
“Yea, about that. I’ve had a chance to re-evaluate so many things lately. Didn’t realize how totally fucking brow beaten I was when you were actually here, beating on my brows. With a bit of space, pun intended, I can see exactly how manipulated I was.”
She was wondering what was going on. Wondering about maybe another woman in the mix here. She shook it away and said, “Can you tell me anything about Marie? Is it her grades?”
“Her grades are fine. Trust you to think that’s what matters.”
His expression now… he knew how much this hurt, was enjoying bringing it to her. “Those early Mars missions, they wouldn’t even have considered you, the Mother of an eleven-year-old for fucks sake. When they did your psych assessment, see whether you could hack being away from Marie all that time, you were pleased with yourself weren’t you? Thought it said something good about you.”
He was looking positively mean now, his eyes piggy. She thought, you’ve put on weight, imagining him spending his evenings drinking beer in front of the screen.
She asked, “Are you making sure that Marie is keeping up with her swimming? Her piano?”
“Don’t you dare lecture me! You’ve sold your family for your career, so don’t give me any shit.”
Maybe there had been more than a few beers tonight, look at him. “Rob, quit this. You know more than anybody what Mars means to a biologist. To biology. Jesus, maybe an answer to the big one, what life is, rather than what it looks like. Three months and I’ll be home.”
His expression was deadpan. “Yea. Like that’s a good thing.”
Then the view on the screen pivoted and changed. Karen frowned, trying to make sense of it, then she had it. She was looking at the ceiling of her bedroom, the pink curve of the ceiling light. Rob must have dropped his tablet on the bed. Or tossed it.
She waited, but nothing happened. “Rob, this is puerile. Even for you.”
She broke the connection. California time was 23.36.
It was ten hours later that Sal shook her awake. She surfaced fast, surprised to find him right there in her cubicle, touching her shoulder. After Rashford’s heart attack, they were the only two people on Voyager III, and had to be scrupulous about behaviors, how it looked back home. He was younger than her by a year or two, early thirties, something like that, and handsome in a compact, Italian kind of way. Now he was leaning right over her, the little gold crucifix round his neck winking as it floated. He kept it polished.
He said, “Something’s wrong.”
She quickly hauled on coveralls and followed him to the bridge. Everything felt normal, the throb of the engines, the console, space, all looking just as it had for months. Earth remained exactly where it should be, a hazy blue dot, dead ahead.
“We’ve lost the homing signal.”
“But it can’t go wrong straight away, can it?”
“No, I haven’t had to adjust course in the last six weeks.”
She gave him a long, patient look. “So, we keep our heads. They sort it out. End of.”
Sometimes, with Sal, it felt like talking to an overanxious child. Pilots were meant to be the tough guys, but Sal… He was shaking his head, irritated.
“Cut the tone, Karen. I’ve tried making contact.”
“I’m not with you.”
“I can’t raise NASA. Can’t raise anybody.”
“ESA? Strategic Command?”
He shook his head and rubbed his crucifix between his thumb and forefinger, a habit he had developed.
She blew out a long breath, nodding as she tried to get to grips with the situation, showing how to do it without fretting or panicking. “So, it’s our systems.”
He shook his head. “Nope. Everything’s working fine. I can even pick up a couple of automated signals, not intended for us.”
She glared at him. “Just spit it out. What are you saying?”
He shrugged, infuriatingly helpless. “I don’t know.”
They spent the next hour trying to raise anybody they could think of, including Rob and the Santa Cruz space station.
Over the next few weeks, the only thing that changed was that the Earth grew gradually larger and the automated signals died. Karen spent long periods staring at Earth through the telescope and long-range scanners, privately fretting that some mad bastard finally pushed the button. Sal finally pointed at his monitor and said, “Look.”
“What am I looking at?”
“Night time over Europe.”
Then it was her turn with the tremor in her voice. “Oh. Oh, I see.”
She had wondered about this, but it was finally too obvious to ignore. The world was dark, with none of the trails and splashes of light she had loved to stare at in the early days of the journey out.
She whispered, “What’s happened, Sal?”
But his only reply was, “I can’t stop thinking about Kali.”
She thought about saying, your sister? You don’t have a child. But didn’t.
He said, “We can only pray, Karen.”
His face was so earnest, like he really thought she would say, oh alright then, let’s pray.
She said, “You do that. I’ll try to raise NASA.”
Then he said, “The only thing I can imagine would do this, would be a massive electro-magnetic pulse. Enough to destroy every piece of electrical technology on Earth.”
“Not…” she struggled to finish the sentence, “Not nuclear war?”
“I was wondering about that, course I was, but everything dark? Everything? I don’t see it.”
Then he said, “If there was a nuclear war, the space station would still be operational.”
They were silent, then he asked, “You think it might be aliens? An alien invasion.”
“I find the notion of aliens a bit far-fetched.”
“When we were on Mars, we were the aliens.”
Time dragged like never before, but eventually they docked with the space station, Sal panicking and sweating, completing the maneuver manually. Karen wanted to slap him.
The door to the Santa Cruz slid open and they stood in their space suits, looking into the familiar passageway. Everything seemed normal, except that nobody was coming forward with smiles and open arms, telling them well done and welcome.
Sal said, “Oxygen level is fine. Normal.”
But when she raised her hands to her helmet his glove was on her arm, stopping her. “Let’s just check first, eh?”
They found the first corpse floating further along the curved passageway – Major Bobby Dale, a good-natured Brit. He was wearing his Keep Calm and Float About tee shirt. Karen approached to within a few inches, her helmet almost touching his face.
“He looks… desiccated.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
“No, it definitely doesn’t.”
They moved on and entered the main deck where most of the crew were floating. Karen could see tasks half done, drinks waiting to be drunk. When Jennifer Morse’s corpse floated close to Sal, he backed to the door.
He said, “It’s like that old ship, the Mary Celeste. Only the crew are still here.”
Karen shoved Jenny out of her way. Then she said “Fuckit” and took her helmet off, telling Sal, “We had to do it eventually.”
Sal nodded but simply stared. He was, she knew, waiting to see if she died.
They landed at Kennedy at 09.40 hours three days later. Sal had hung a St. Christopher from a toggle, kissing it and muttering a prayer before releasing the shuttle. He had made such a deal of the complexity of planning the descent, fretting over it for days. She believed him, she just wished he would shut up and get on with it.
Even though they had progressively upped their gravity conditioning, it was still deeply uncomfortable to descend the steps onto the concrete of the massive runway. They stood for a while out in the wide open, breathing real air and feeling the sun, hot on their skin.
Sal, testing a theory of his, made sweeps with a hand-held radiation monitor. Then he bent and swept it along the ground.
Nobody came to greet them and so they walked, their footsteps the only noise in the crushing silence of the world. The first corpse they encountered was a bird, a pigeon, lying on the runway. Karen bent to inspect it briefly, then stood without comment and they pressed on towards the space center.
A mechanic lay under the wing of an aircraft, a ratchet still in his hand. Two dead soldiers lay near the entrance of the space center. They pushed through the glass doors.
Everything inside seemed normal, sleek, and high tech, except for the corpses and the silence. They wandered, dazed, eventually coming to a canteen. Karen bent down beside a beefy man in an expensive suit, who had fallen into his burger and fries.
She said, “It’s the same as the space station. The corpses are dried out. But not decomposed. No sign of insect activity either.”
“Everything dead rots.”
“To decompose, you need bacteria. Look at his food, and that milky drink. Not soured or moldy.”
“What are you saying?”
She took a huge breath, not wanting to say it, because saying it made it real. She had known it on the space station, when Bobby Dale floated towards her. “Everything must have died. Not just people, everything. Birds. Insects. Bacteria. Everything.”
Sal walked to a window to look out over the perfect day. He asked his God, a sob in his voice, “Why, Lord?”
Karen trying to make sense of it, “Maybe some sort of massive radiation pulse? Something like Gamma that would leave nothing to measure.”
“No sign of burning. That man had food in his mouth. The dove fell from the sky. They died…” He made a motion with his hand, like flicking a switch. “Only God could have done this.”
“It wasn’t a dove. It was a pigeon.”
They left the base in a Honda Civic they found in the car park. The keys had been in the ignition and the driver in his seat, holding a cell phone. Karen hauled him onto the tarmac and drove them into Titusville, cruising in the sunshine past the Medical Plaza, Junior High and Domino’s Pizza, at one point having to skirt a motorcyclist lying near his Harley.
Sal said, “Not many people. Lying about, I mean.”
“I’m thinking about my last conversation with Rob, where I thought he tossed his tablet aside. I don’t think he did.”
“I think you’re right. This happened, all of it, in a single instant. He didn’t throw his tablet. It fell out of his hand as he was thinking up his next insult. March 14th at about 23.30 hours in California. So, 02.30 here. That’s why there wasn’t more activity at the space center, and why the streets are empty. Most folks are at home, in bed. I bet if we flew to Europe the streets would be full of dead people.”
She stopped the car to stare at a middle-aged man in jogging clothes, lying beside his German Shepherd. “When I went to Mars, I wasn’t hoping to find life, so much as understand what life is.”
“Come on. We know what life is.”
“We know the properties of life. I could list them. We don’t have a clue what it actually is.”
“We should pray. This is His judgement and we need to understand. We need to know why he’s spared us.”
She was suddenly angry. “We weren’t spared, you dumb shit. We just weren’t here to be killed.”
Then she said, “I’m going home.”
“I’ll come with you.”
She shook her head, no.
“It’s a big, big world!” He seemed panicked, “If we ever got separated, we’ll never find each other again. How could we?”
She thought about that, about whether it mattered.
Sal asked, “You see yourself living out your years all alone?”
She shook her head, not telling him that she didn’t see herself living any longer than it took to get back to her daughter.
He said, “We have a duty.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We might literally be the last two people alive on Earth.”
Then staring at her with those big dark Italian eyes, he said, “Don’t leave me.”
Karen left him standing by the side of the road to drive across America, from Florida to Oakland, California. In her pocket was the slip of paper that Sal had written, fretting over her losing it, an address of some country house near Washington, where he would be.
She watched him dwindle in the wing mirror and held the paper fluttering in slipstream before letting it fly.
Only twenty miles west of Kennedy a wreck blocked the freeway and she had to walk in the terrible silence till she found a greyhound bus, half filled with silent passengers. There was a car nearby too, but she wanted the bus.
She picked up Route 20, passing fields with brown crops and dead stock animals. She meandered, stopping at a house on the outskirts of Yazoo City. She found ready-to-bake bread and canned hamburgers and a gas barbeque, stood in the sun to eat. It rained, and she stood in the rain.
She found a guest bed with no corpses in it and next morning told her passengers goodbye and took the family Kia.
She passed Memphis and Amarillo where she picked up Route 40. She stopped at a farmhouse outside of Adrian that had an oil stove and flour and meat packed in plastic in the freezer that had neither dried nor rotted. She stayed for almost two weeks, eating and walking and sleeping in a massive bed with a feather duvet. It was so big that she didn’t bother rolling the old lady out, but by the end of the second week the corpse was beginning to smell.
Karen thought about that, but the answer was obvious, as nothing else was decomposing. The bacteria to set the old woman rotting had come from her.
The old lady’s pickup truck ran out of fuel outside of Albuquerque and she walked to a roadside bar with a neon sign showing a woman grinning as she swung improbable breasts. Inside, it was dark and she was hit instantly by the powerful smells of old beer, liquor and sweat.
Her torch picked out a near naked woman, lying at the bottom of a sparkling pole on a low stage. The dance floor was a tangle of arms and legs and most tables had corpses slumped over or under them. Who knew these places were so popular!
She stepped over a scantily clad waitress, whose tray of drinks was scattered in her lap, and walked to the bar to order a Jack Daniel’s, but the barman was busy. So, she helped herself.
After she had drunk half the bottle she made her way to the stage and shoved the dancer aside. She had once taken pole-dancing lessons, for fitness and because Linda at the faculty thought it was a bit of a laugh. Rob had loved it. Now she stripped and went through her routine, with the torch for lighting, pleased at how easily the moves came back to her. Nobody clapped.
It seemed that the closer she got to Oakland, the easier it became to distract her. She took to driving with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in her lap and once took a Camaro up to 180. On a whim, she burned Las Vegas to the ground, setting fires until the whole city was ablaze.
She swam in the sea near Salinas, then walked the beach where thousands of fish and even a whale marked high tide. Weeks later, she reached Oakland, the university town where she had been happy, once. Where she had met Rob and had his child and where they attended faculty dinners while her star rose, taking her all the way to fucking Mars.
The house looked the same as always, although the garden that Rob had been so proud of had browned and crisped. Inside, it still smelled of wax polish, old patchouli and, underneath, the lingering smell of fried onions. She stood in her kitchen and drank a large glass of Cabernet.
Rob was lying in their bed, unshaven and wearing plaid pajamas, his tablet by his knee, pointing at the pink shade of the ceiling lamp. She sat beside him to finish her glass. Marie was asleep, as always, on her right side, with her legs curled protectively up. Karen swept her hair aside and kissed her cheek, then climbed in behind her. She was still skinny, but her breasts had grown. She was turning into a very beautiful young woman, and all the boys would be after her.
She was taller than Karen now. Maybe by three or even four inches. Karen hadn’t expected that, and told her, girl you must be nearly six feet! Take after your Father.
She told her how proud she was of her, how beautiful she looked. Downstairs again, she found the little cook’s blow torch and started on the curtains in the lounge. When they were nicely alight, she walked round, setting fire to anything that looked ready to burn.
Then, she went back upstairs and lay down beside Marie.
She woke in confusion, coughing, being dragged, pushed and lifted. The stairs were full of smoke and she tried to shout but she was coughing too hard. She was being hauled and pushed, not gently. Then she was outside, being dragged across the driveway and away from the house, which was burning fiercely.
Sal said, “I knew you’d do something like this. I knew it!”
“Get off me!”
But he was still dragging her, all the way to the end of the drive where a police cruiser idled. He slammed her against the side of the car. Then he pulled her arms up behind her and, when he stepped away, she couldn’t move them down.
“Handcuffs! Are you crazy?!”
“I’m the only sane person in the whole world right now. I can’t let you waste yourself. It’s plain wrong.”
The last she saw of her home was out of the rear window of the cruiser, a huge wall of flame, rising above the trees.
Karen filled the kettle and put it on the stove. When Sal came in, muddy from his work, she spooned out the vegetable stew she had made, staying quiet whilst he said grace. Then they ate. They had been living in this remote house, North of Palm Springs, through the cooler months.
He stared at his plate, tired and despondent, but not nervous or anxious. It seemed he was done with that. “It’s no use,” he said, “Nothing from the old world grows. The seeds, none of them will germinate.”
She didn’t say I told you so. Instead, she sniffed the air and said, “Smells like another fire.”
“There’s always a fire someplace. I’m reluctant to leave here, we have things working so well, but I think we need to be further North before summer.”
He opened a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and poured them each a healthy shot. Then he said, “We need to have children. Can’t delay any longer.”
“Not this again.”
“D’you honestly think that this is a coincidence? That God has spared only one man and one woman. He has chosen us, Karen!”
Karen took a shot of the liquor and felt it burn.
“I don’t believe that.”
“Then you are naïve. It’s right there in the Bible, everything is. The Lord giveth life, and he can take it away. But, even if you aren’t a believer, you must see that the future of the human species is in our hands! It really and truly is down to us.”
Karen looked out into the fading light. “I wouldn’t bring a child into this.”
“We are surviving. We’ve got water.” He pointed at his plate. “Food.”
“Everything gets older every day. Nothing new.”
“There will still be dried vegetables in a thousand years! They won’t rot, will they? Sacks of flour. Jars of peanut butter and honey.”
“It will be horrible. And everything we touch rots.”
“All the more reason to move. We could become a nomadic tribe, always moving. And who knows. Maybe in a hundred years, a thousand, things will grow again. Can you be sure that won’t happen? And our descendants will be there to see it.”
She sat as the room darkened, playing with a fork. She said, “Oxygen.”
“What about it?”
“Can’t you tell the air is changing? There’s nothing making oxygen anymore. Fires all the time, using it up.”
“It’s a huge world, Karen.”
Now she leaned in towards him. “Have you been to the sea? It’s full of dead animals. Like a massive bowl of soup.”
“I swam in the Pacific. Soon, that will be one huge bowl of rotten soup.”
“The air will fill with Hydrogen Sulphide. And the earth, it’s hardening, compacting. No fungus or worms in there. The air, the sea, the earth, all fucked.”
“It’s our duty to try.”
“You really want to bring kids into a world where nothing grows and the air will be unbreathable?”
“Don’t you get it? We’ve been given a chance. That’s all anybody ever has.”
She refilled their glasses, but he moved suddenly, right beside her, making her spill as he loomed angrily over her.
“Don’t you know right from wrong, woman?”
She pushed him back, having to push hard, and got to her feet, taking a couple of steps away, as if that made any difference.
“There’s no such thing as right and wrong.”
“I don’t believe you think that.”
“You really want to know what I think?” Now it was her turn to be angry, after months of numbness, and she hadn’t seen it coming.
“Anything that helped us we called good. Genocide, torture, take your pick. Anything that got in our way, we called bad.”
“No, right is right! And it would be the worst kind of wrong to allow our own race to perish.”
Karen looked at him, earnest face, hands dirty from digging.
“This world is done, and us with it. I won’t bring a child into it.”
He shook his head gravely and rubbed the little gold crucifix between his thumb and forefinger. She remembered when it would float in front of his chest.
He spoke stiffly, not looking at her. “Then you force my hand.”
He let that lie there as she thought about what he meant.
“You’re talking about rape?”
“I’m talking about my solemn duty under God.”
“You just proved my point, Sal. Rape is suddenly good if it suits you.”
He leaned forward and tried to take her hand. “We’re Adam and Eve, Karen!”
Karen pulled away and stood to light a lamp, taking it out onto the porch. The smell of burning was stronger here.
Sal was right, the future life on earth rested entirely with them. She shook her head at the enormity of it, the crazy responsibility. Despite what she had told him, she didn’t know what to do.
It was full dark now, the sky a great disc of stars. She stared for a while, breathless, then dropped her gaze to the south, and the orange glow of another massive wildfire.
Burning up the world.
by Bill Davidson