When everyone else is dead, what is there to live for? For the six inhabitants of ruined Earth, it’s an excellent question, one Tim finds himself asking again and again…
When the wind comes from the north, I can smell the sickly sweet scent of decay. It never fails to take me back, to dump me right in the middle of it all again. The boss calls it a flashback, but it’s never just a flash. It’s like a full body immersion, sweat and dirt included.
So when the wind comes from the north, I stay indoors. But I know it’s out there. I listen to the sheets flapping against the doors and the scrape of metal getting dragged down the street. So no matter how hard I squeeze my eyes closed, or bury my head beneath my jacket, I still know it’s there, so I still see them.
Vast bodies, sickly green and twisted, brutalised by the only weapons we had that could touch them. The memories of that day sicken me almost as much as those preceding it, the days and weeks and months that led up to that point. But thinking about them doesn’t help. Then again, in these days, the end of days, nothing helps.
The boss snorts every time I call them that. I’m the ‘doomsayer’ of the group, apparently. I’d call it being the realist, but everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, I suppose. Just a shame everyone else’s is wrong. I try to act like it doesn’t bug me, but the lies sickened me before the war and they’ve not gotten any less, just changed identity. And now we’re lying to ourselves.
It’s not like there’s anyone left to lie to us.
The front door rattles and I wince. They’re back. My brief moment of stillness, of isolation, is done. I’m tempted to stay here, to wait in the tiny cubby hole I jokingly call my room until someone comes and drags me out, makes me join in the work. But I’m neither lazy nor a slacker, and I’ll never be called such. They can bitch at me for being cynical all they like, they won’t be pissed at me for not doing my share of the work.
I sit, turn my legs sideways, then slip down through the hatch. I land in the corridor and pause, listening. I can hear their voices, Shala, David, Andreas, Cigs, the Boss. All that’s left. Every time I think that, I get dizzy. Still. It’s been the six of us for nearly six months and still I get dizzy.
I know why I get dizzy. We’re fucked. I used to use the word doomed, or wretched, but these days, I go for something more upfront, something more honest. We’re fucked. Six members of the human race left on a dying planet without two sticks to rub together.
So there’s that, and then there’s what I’m about to do, or not about to do, I should say. Because the five of them are back from their latest scavenging and they’ll be excited, showing one another scraps of clothing, or pieces of radio they’ll be sure they can piece together into something strong enough to call off-world. It’s all bullshit, obviously, but they’ll believe it. Until a few weeks ago, I’d have told them how stupid it is, how pointless their excitement is. But now, I’ve given up.
Last time I said it, the boss rounded on me, gave me a mouthful in front of the others. He’d have never done that during combat. When we had things to shoot, things to fight, he wouldn’t have dreamt of bawling me out before the others. But now, he doesn’t care. He’s so fixated on the damned escape craft, he no longer gives a shit about me.
So now I keep my mouth shut. I don’t nod or smile, I’m not changing my mind, I just can’t be bothered with the hassle and the abuse.
Their voices are getting louder and already I can hear the hope that used to break my heart, but now drains through the cracks in it. I hesitate, wondering whether they’d even miss me if I turned and left. There are plenty of places like this, burnt out and unused, apartment buildings that still fill the sky, even if their inhabitants are long dead.
I’m surprised we don’t find more corpses. The invaders ate us; if the top brass were to be believed, that was their reason for coming here in the first place, but it was the diseases that did for most of the human race. Diseases carried on the backs of things we still have no name for. Creatures who, despite warring with them for 12 years, we never spoke to.
I can still remember the message. One simple message, broadcast on the day they landed, informing us that we were now considered the property of a name that meant nothing, and that we should present ourselves before them. A few of the world’s leaders were stupid enough to do exactly that. Next thing, they’ve been eaten, along with the several hundred soldiers who’d gone along as ‘security.’
But surely, after the diseases struck, there should be bodies everywhere. The boss reckons the diseases ate them, decomposition happening over weeks instead of years. And they had plenty of time to rot before we figured it all out. Not that we ever did, not really.
‘Tim, where are you?’
I let out a huge sigh and jog down the rest of the hallway into the room at the end. The barricade is back in place, our sheet of steel that keeps the rest of the dead, empty world away from us. It’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever seen, this meaningless symbol of how complete my companions’ self delusion has become.
In the centre of the room is a huge pile of stuff that ranges from dented tins, to pieces of scrap metal, to a pile of material, to a couple of books. Everything and anything they could find to make our final days more enjoyable.
I often wondered what living on Death Row was like. My brother in law, scumbag that he was, was on death row. My sister, stupid cow, remained loyal to him all the way up till they both succumbed. I wondered, despite loathing him, what it was like for him.
Now I know. Not that the others agree, but that’s where we are.
‘Hey, Tim, nice rest?’ Shala ask, flashing her pretty smile my way. I rock my head from side to side.
‘Not bad, thanks. Could have done with some company.’
She grins again and I almost reach out and touch her. I don’t, though. I tried it a few months back and nearly lost a hand. She likes to flirt, but with five men and only one woman left alive, she’s taking her time choosing. Or maybe she’s already chosen and doesn’t like any of us. Or maybe she’s chosen and it’s already happening and I’m just too blind to notice.
Either way, it’s not me. So I have to settle for flirting and my right hand. For the rest of my life.
I begin to dig through the pile when a hand lands on my shoulder. ‘Not today, Tim, take it easy.’
The boss gives me a nod as I turn to him. ‘Why not?’
‘What are we celebrating?’
‘Well, I’d like to say proving you wrong, but that would be low of me, now, wouldn’t it? So instead I’ll say we’re celebrating this.’ He brandishes something at me that looks suspiciously like a phone, only about three times the size.
‘What is it?’
‘Off-world transmitter. We picked it up in a bunker, along with dozens of good food sachets and this.’ In his other hand, he wields a bottle of vodka. I couldn’t give a monkeys about the transmitter – what’s there to get excited about when there’s no one out there to talk to – but the vodka’s bloody excellent news.
I reach for it and he swipes it out of reach. ‘Not yet. We made contact, but we need to get back in touch, make sure of a few things before we get too drunk.’
‘There’s six of us, Boss, I’m not sure we need to worry about one bottle of…’ I trail off as I hear clinking and turn around to see Cigs, all 6’8” of him, ambling into our kitchen with a box filled with bottles. The boss is grinning and, despite the meaningless piece of crap in his hand, I can’t grinning right back.
He crouches in one corner, thumbs a few buttons, then holds up a hand to silence us. ‘Calling Mother One, this is squad B7 of the final resistance. Requesting immediate evac, repeat, requesting immediate evac.’
We all wait and, though I hate myself for it, my breath is caught in my throat, refusing to budge. Shala’s in the doorway, gripping the wood, knuckles white. The others are the same, David crouched also, gripping his cross in his hands, muttering prayers under his breath.
The radio hisses, cuts out, then a voice speaks. ‘Squad B7, please repeat your message. Are you trying to tell us there’s really someone alive down there?’
The silence deepens a second before everyone, me included, goes completely batshit crazy. We’re whooping and cheering, even the boss looks happy, which is as rare as me hoping for the best. Then he frowns and waves his hands at us. It takes a few seconds, but eventually we quieten down and he speaks into the comms.
‘Mother One, this is Corporal Hudson. We are alive down here. Six in total, all alive, all immune. Please confirm time and place for evac.’
More waiting as the call gets bounced off satellites I was convinced weren’t even working anymore, then relayed through the systems of a ship larger than a city. A ship that should, had everything gone to plan, be several thousand light years from here by now. But I’m not thinking about that. I can’t think about that because Shala’s just run across the room and thrown herself into my arms.
I crush her in a hug, pressing my lips into her hair. She smells amazing. I’m waiting for her to pull herself free and run to someone else, but she’s staying put. I glance over her head at Cigs and he grins, cocking me a nod. Looks like she chose.
‘Corporal Hudson, this is Mother One. Evac will take place in two hours. I’ll send her down on this transmission. Be ready for swift retrieval. Am I glad to hear your voices.’
The transmitters hisses and falls silent. The boss stands, straightening, grinning. Our eyes meet over Shala’s head and he shakes his at me, showing his disappointment in my doubt. I don’t blame him, I was disappointed in myself. But I’ve always been the realist and that ain’t changing. It’s what kept us alive when the others were all dropping and that’s something I’m proud of.
The boss raises his bottle of vodka. ‘Looks like we’ve got us some friends, people.’
The room explodes into cheers, which I join in with for the few seconds it takes Shala to raise her head and press her lips to mine. After that, I’m not aware of much. I feel the burn of booze as the boss shoves the bottle in my hand and exhorts me to drink. I’m hyper aware that Shala never lets go of me, even when we grab the few things that are worth taking off world.
Everyone’s talking. Everyone’s wondering how we got so lucky, that Mother One is still here. I’m still keeping my mouth shut. I’m just happy to be wrong. Never been happier.
Two hours pass like that and we’re outside, guns at the ready. I still don’t get the paranoia. We’re alone here. The last of the aliens died the day we dropped the viruses and the humans all went long before, torn apart by diseases that could eat us from the outside. As I glance round at the others, wondering at the natural immunity we share that brought us together, I hear a whining that sets my teeth on edge.
We all stare skywards as the sound, once as natural as singing, brings memories bubbling to the surface. My first thought is that it’s more recruits, more poor suckers come to feed the aliens. That’s what we used to say when they were shipped in. They hadn’t come to fight, they’d come to be dinner. That it was the truth didn’t make it any less funny. Not that it was funny.
The ship comes down, small, box like, looking for all the world like heaven in 50 tonnes of spaceship engineering. It hits the street and we pile in through the opening doors. Moments later, it lifts back up. I’m barely in my seat and Shala’s fumbling with straps she once did up easier than her jacket. I lean over and click it into place. We share a smile and a kiss and I can’t help laughing.
The journey to Mother One takes a half hour. We spend it talking about the first things we’re going to do once we board. Cig’s is gonna find someone to fight. Not in a bad way, in the ring, the way he used to before the war. David’s gonna find a prayer group, which would have made me vomit once, but doesn’t since he saved my life. He can believe in whatever the hell he wants, so long as he keeps shooting the way he does. Andreas is going to eat as much as he can, until he can’t move for the weight of his stomach.
The boss is gonna sleep without a knife under his pillow. Doesn’t seem like much to me, but I’m not sure how long it’s been since he’s slept much at all. Me and Shala don’t answer the question, but the others do a damned good job of answering it for us.
Mother’s quiet when we dock and even quieter when we march out onto the hanger floor. In fact, if not for the rumble of engines beneath our feet, I’d think she was a ghost ship. Something stirs in my stomach, a faint yet familiar feeling of the world shifting beneath my feet, of things not being quite the way they should.
By the time we reach the bridge, I’m barely walking. Shala hasn’t noticed it, but I’ve gotten good at hiding the despair. I don’t know why I’m bothering to hide it. Maybe because I’m worried, the same way I’ve been the last few weeks, when I saw the cracks beginning to show, that the people around me, my family, will blame the one who said it was all going wrong, when it does go wrong.
The doors to the bridge hiss open and we all hold our breaths for the second time. The first thing I see is a man, blond and bright eyed, staring at us with eyes that never sit still. The second is the other inhabitants of the bridge. They were people, once, though now they’re only corpses. They must have been corpses for a damned long time, but somehow the rot’s been arrested, stopped just before it went too far. I think I know how.
As the blond man rises from his chair, a few flies drift up from the bodies. Shala gags and presses her head into my shoulder. The man holds his hands out to welcome us to the bridge.
‘Welcome to Mother One. As you can see, we had our own share of the diseases up here. We got a particularly interesting one, that slows the rotting process quite considerably. I’m happy to announce, though, that I, of the entire crew of the ship, am immune. So please, come on in, make yourselves at home.’
‘Least we got a ship.’ Cigs growls, like that makes it okay. I keep my mouth shut. They don’t want to know about the different diseases and all the stuff I’ve been reading from the last scavenge. They don’t want to know that I’ve read about this particular disease. And they definitely don’t want to know that our own immunity, that wondrous gift that kept us alive when the rest of the Earth was falling, won’t mean a damned thing against this one. They won’t want to know that, so I keep my mouth shut.