The Fading Embers of Earth
I used to believe in this shit. I really did. The flickering animatronic display of Bombardier Betty emits a raspy grinding noise as it tries, but fails, to continue waving. Covered in a thin layer of lunar regolith, her words inaudible through the hard vacuum.
Something like “Please proceed in an orderly fashion to the lifeboats. Do not push. Do not bring any personal items with you that may take up room needed by additional colonists.”
Those colonists still sit there in row after row of bolted-down seats. Secured in place by five point harnesses, to protect life which has long since left their bodies. Some are huddled together with their children. Some clasp their hands over their faces, or are kissing their spouse.
Frozen in their final position. Preserved by the vacuum, as are we. No longer a lifeboat, then, waiting to be picked up and delivered from the lunar surface by dropships we shot down during our invasion.
Just another corpse load. Like the cartridge of a rifle, with human remains packed together like bullets that will never be fired. The last of their kind, neatly strapped in as if it was ever going to make any difference.
Outside the lifeboat hangar, the lunar surface is criss-crossed by concrete barriers and fortifications. Bunkers, pillboxes, guard towers, all manner of military structures even though there is nobody left to fight. We just build more of it wherever we go, until it covers everything. I’m not sure why.
I remember when they came for me. Watching the impossible unfold, even as I kicked and screamed, still unbelieving. How could I have survived the war on Earth, escaping to the Moon with the last living souls, only to still be swallowed up in the end?
I remember gathering around the monitors with the others, watching satellite footage from Earth. All those ashen skinned corpses in their tidy black uniforms, goose-stepping over the wreckage of our homes. Trampling beneath their boots any remaining shred of life, warmth and color.
There was this bittersweet feeling. Watching all of it go up in flames from the safety of mankind’s final redoubt, built in secret on the far side of the Moon. Sadness, to see everything I once cherished ground up and burnt by the endless legions of the dead.
But also satisfaction to have escaped it. Still believing that they would never, ever find us here. I still have my collection of Bombardier Betty tapes. These faint, crackling recordings are all that remains of her, and of the world that I once knew.
I know each time I listen, I’m wearing out the tape a little bit. The day will come when even this last trace of her is gone, and her voice will never be heard again by anyone. Still, I listen. Like desperately sucking the last bit of flavor from a fruit which is about to go extinct.
Lingering. Stretching it out as far as it will go, to dwell in that memory as completely as possible until reality finally intrudes. Even though holding on for too long, because we are weak, is how all of this got started.
The dead don’t seem to create any culture. Just tanks, airships, rockets and other fighting machines. No architecture other than concrete fortifications, guard towers and pillboxes. Whatever I’ve become a part of, it has no clear purpose other than to make more of itself.
More concrete structures, more troops endlessly patrolling corridors, more loud speakers to broadcast that incessant garbled radio chatter. I feel as if I should be able to understand it, but I can’t. The only ones I’ve ever heard speak in English are other officers, like me.
The infantry were certainly human at one point. They have two arms and two legs. But I’ve never seen any of them remove their uniform. I’ve never heard anything cogent from them, just garbled radio chatter.
Once, I snatched the gas mask off one of them. There was just another gas mask underneath. It didn’t even struggle. Just patiently waited until I released it, then resumed patrolling those barren concrete trenches and corridors.
The only moments of happiness I have known, since I died, were discoveries of holdouts. Pockets of human survivors hiding in still-pressurized underground tunnels or storage rooms. How frantically we descended upon them. How ravenously!
Even in a vacuum, we slowly deteriorate just from the friction of moving about. I shudder to imagine what a mess the average soldier is under their uniform, given how haggard and worn out many officers now appear.
But for those brief, joyous moments, there was a small influx of life into us. Of fresh blood, of warm, living tissue with which to rejuvenate ourselves. A feeding frenzy, self-justifying in the moment but never remotely sustainable.
Immediately afterwards, we were fresh once more. Brightly colored. Good as new. Of course it didn’t last. Our joints began to wear out like they always do. Our skin began to hang more and more loosely on our skulls as we anxiously searched for any more pockets of survivors which might still exist. As if that would solve our problems.
The others carry on as if we’ll never run out. But it’s been months since the last survivors were found. There’s just not going to be any more. Party’s over, but the lights are still on and the guests won’t leave. I don’t know if there is any feeling left in the rest, but I feel hollow.
It’s like being in love. A madness grips you which you cannot recognize except after the fact. Everything is perfect and wonderful, until it ends. Then you’re left sitting there, disheveled, stupefied and deafened by the explosion of your life.
All the aches and pains return, which love used to lubricate so that you did not notice them. The greyness of the world returns. Like the comedown after a meth binge, it leaves you unable to think about anything except how to return to where you were. How to get back inside of that magical delirium.
There is no inside anymore. There never will be again. Everything worth living for now slowly recedes in the rear view mirror as I squint, struggling to make out the ever-shrinking details. Savoring, as much as I can, the remains of something beautiful which will never return.
I remember reading someplace that war does not determine who is right, only who is left. Fitting then, that death is the victor of this final war. The only thing that will go on after it, shambling forward in a cruel imitation of life, hungrily scouring this barren place for any scraps it overlooked.
All I have left of the life I used to know are these tapes. Lingering echoes of an era we now stand at the end of, which no power known to us can ever restore. So I listen to the echoes that it left behind. The warbling, scratchy voice on these tapes, clinging to the memory of a ghost.
It feels as if a song I really love is playing for the last time ever. So of course, I’ve slowed the ending down as much as possible, trying to live inside of those last few seconds stretched out into years, decades, even centuries.
Holding on like this, refusing to let it end only distorts the song into something totally unlike what it was supposed to be...destroying everything that I ever loved about it. Even knowing this, I can’t stop myself. It’s all that’s left, and there is nothing else that I want.
How appropriate, that we should inhabit this place. A dead world. Bleak, dry, airless desert as far as the eye can see. Mars is the same so far as our probes have revealed, but high command believes there may be other worlds orbiting distant stars.
Worlds still full of color, warmth and life that we might descend upon. Our angular, shining black carriers looming large in their sky. Coffin shaped drop pods glowing red as they plummet through the atmosphere. Grave mites emerging from within, after it cools.
The old, familiar madness could begin anew. The steamy red, pumped out from their bodies, replaced with the glistening black. They would fall, struck down by our bullets. But then they would rise again, the way I did. The way we all did.
There can only be so many life bearing worlds. I know, in my limp and motionless heart, that we will run out of them one day. Feverishly gorging ourselves, forgetting that this has happened before. That the concrete fortifications will spread across their world, the guard towers and pillboxes until every inch of it is covered.
The day will arrive when, once again, we have hunted down and consumed the last pocket of survivors. The mania will then subside, like the moment of hollow clarity following an orgasm. We will look back upon what we have done and feel nothing except desperation to ‘get back inside’. To find some new, unspoiled planet, teeming with life, and carry on as before.
Until the day comes at last when there’s truly no more. Just no more life to be had, anywhere. We will then slowly rot away to atoms in a cold, dark universe, the color and warmth of which we single handedly extinguished.
I don’t know what death is. I thought I did when I died...but then I woke up. I don’t know anything now, except that we will go on spreading. Everything will be consumed. Nothing will be spared. It will never stop until we find ourselves sitting in our concrete bunkers on the charred remains of the last life bearing world, with nothing left to do except reflect on what we’ve done.
Even knowing all this, I can’t stop myself. I can’t. Such is the power of this poison. Were I to find another cloistered hideout of surviving colonists during this inspection, I would report it. Only after helping myself, though.
After returning to the lander, I survey the devastated remains of the lifeboat launch facility on our way up to lunar orbit. The fleet awaits us there, pending departure for the nearest star system. Within my suit, I continue listening to my precious tapes.
“-That’s the patented mixture of proteins and savory chocolate flavoring in every glass of delicious, nourishing Ovaltine that gives our boys on the front lines the energy they need to keep fighting! Ask your mom to pick up some today! Now, back to news from the front-”
The sound became scrambled here. When I removed the cassette, I found the tape spilling out of it, tangled up in the magnetic reader mechanism. Painstakingly, I began the process of untangling it and re-winding the spools.
My quarters aboard the capitol ship were as I left them. Fabrics slowly fading, as the plants used to make their dye no longer exist. The internal atmosphere, a preservative gas which slows down decomposition, smelled faintly of rose petals.
I discovered why when I found a set of dried roses, pressed flat between the pages of a large book. A note on it revealed it was a gift from one of my subordinates, found among the belongings left behind by those colonists during their doomed exodus.
The wrinkled, delicate petals are still a brilliant red. When I absentmindedly touch them, some desiccated flakes fall off onto the page below. I frown, skin crackling subtly around my brow, and shut the book in the hopes that I can keep the roses perfect for as long as possible.
Through the porthole, Earth looms over the lunar horizon. Fires still rage across the continents visible from this angle, so widespread as to be visible to the naked eye, even from this distance. There is nothing green. Only dull browns and greys, the ocean now an acidic soup devoid of fish, algae or any other life.
It occurs to me that I only suffer because I am still here to look back on what has happened. All there is left to hope for is that one day, after the universe has gone dark, there will be nobody left to look back.
As the fleet gets underway on its new course, the Earth begins to subtly shrink. Not noticeable from moment to moment, but as I sit there and stare at it over the next hour, it grows discernibly smaller. The details grow fainter. Everything I once knew receding silently into blackness, as if being devoured by it...until at last, it is gone.
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