BY J. D. Waye
Copyright is held by the author.
“TRUST ME. Open your eyes.”
I fought against the vertigo, against the instinct to keep my eyes squeezed shut. Brown pupils flecked with gold greeted me, the rest of his face interrupted by the helmet and gas mask. The corners of his eyes crinkled, as if he was smiling somewhere underneath all that equipment.
“Now focus on a distant object. Take a deep breath.” His knee pressed into mine, long legs crowding the aisle gap between us. “Better?”
The rolling, lurching in my stomach faded to something I could cope with. “Yes.”
“First away mission?” he asked.
“First non-simulated drop.”
“You’ll do fine, Private 4930 Eva Perez.” As he turned away, the glare of his interior monitor flashed against his visor, red words streaming in a backwards reflection. Our orders — for his eyes only.
The siren screamed to brace for landing. Up and down the row of uniformed troops, a dozen pairs of hands gripped, visors snapped, seatbelts tightened. The yellow biohazard insignias emblazoned on our suits glowed between the darkness and the flashing warning lights. Everything shook now, including all the parts of me that hadn’t already been trembling, but I wasn’t alone in my jacked-up adrenaline rush.
The leveling landing feet took over, smoothing out the awkward angle of the cabin.
All eyes snapped to attention.
“There’s been no word from the colony for six weeks now. Unknown if we’re walking into a hostile situation. Keep in contact at all times. Role call every 10 minutes, on the hour. Nobody takes a leak without backup cover. No exceptions. No distractions. War zone drill.”
“Sir yes sir.”
The hatch whooshed open, bright light glaring before my visor shifted into polarized mode. One by one we dashed out, heads low, running in formation, guns ready. Dash, crouch, cover. Dash again.
In less than a year the colonists managed to build a town square. Some shops, some houses, a barn, a bandstand for dancing on moonlit nights while two orbs circled the foreign heavens. Tall flowers, like tiger lilies, swayed orange and black in the breeze, scattering a dusting of pollen along the sidewalks. Not exactly Earth, but still lovely.
No signs of life — no bustling humans, no barking dogs, no livestock cropping the overgrown grass.
He waved to me — Captain Miller — last month a title on my assignment roster, now in charge of my survival.
“What do you make of this, Perez?”
My scanner swept over the object he indicated, a brownish-green goo dried up along the thin edges, oozing out of a discarded boot.
“Unknown, sir. Sending data to Mothership for analysis.”
“Creepy.” He shuddered, and then stilled himself. A rag fluttered by; he poked it with the barrel of his gun, lifting it up for inspection. It was a shirt, soaked with that same crusty mess as the boot.
“Over here, sir.” The background static didn’t cover the tremor in Private Reese’s voice.
More discarded clothes, this time sheltered from the sun and wind by the overhang of a porch, half in, half out, of a doorway. Inside the building, clusters of clothes and shoes dotted the floor, like the humans dissolved right where they stood, bones melting away with flesh.
Reese shook his head. “Impossible.”
“What—who—could do this?” I said.
“Don’t know.” Miller would have rubbed his chin, but the helmet got in the way. “Scout drill alpha six. Start now.”
We scoured the area, sector by sector. No bombed buildings. No discarded foreign biological warfare cartridges. No black scorch of flames. No buzz of insects in the summer heat. No birds swooping in the emerald sky.
There were no survivors. We plotted the location of each possible corpse, looking for a pattern. Half-eaten meals, unfinished homework, unclosed communicators scattered on the floor. It was as if they just all turned to Jello right in the middle of an ordinary day.
The emptiness of it all ate away at my soul.
“Troops recall to base. Begin roll call.”
The drill began, the list of names with a breathless pause between voices, waiting for something to happen, someone to go missing. We instinctively huddled against the mystery, backs to the gazebo in the village square, rigid in attack formation.
“Incoming transmission.” Miller paused, riveted by the privacy-mode message broadcasting into his helmet. The team watched the horizon, while I watched Captain Miller. He stood erect, and then his shoulders drooped like he was slowly being deflated. When the signal flashed out, there was almost nothing left to him.
“At ease, people.”
“Mothership has confirmed that the colonists perished from a hostile microbe event, non-compatible with animal cellular structure. The microbes are carried by the pollen, not released until the flowers bloomed. A defensive mechanism against invading organisms.”
“Like us.” Reese swallowed so hard it broadcasted over the headsets.
“I hate this drill. Bio-hazard scrub. Quarantine. But I could use a good colon cleanse after all that deep-fried briskon on Orion Five.”
Everyone laughed at Reese — everyone but Miller. His eyes were hidden behind the glare of sunset reflecting off his visor.
Reese headed for the shuttle, a knot of soldiers trudging behind him. “Let’s get it over with. At least I won’t have to go through quarantine alone this time.”
“Wait.” Miller cleared his throat, his voice cracked, and he started again. “You deserve to know.”
Wind rustled through the flowers. The tiger lilies swayed; a fresh burst of pollen scattered on the air, glazing my visor with sticky yellow dust.
“We can’t go back.”
“What do you mean?”
“Mothership deems the microbes too toxic, too risky for decontamination protocol. The rest of the fleet could be wiped out if we return. You get on that shuttle, you’re dead. They’re going to blow it up when it reaches orbit. A humane end for us.”
“Order them to stand down.” Spit and sweat marked the inside of Reese’s visor, his breath clouding and vanishing. He shoved Miller, who raised his fists in defence. “Tell them. Now.”
I jumped between them. “Back off.”
“You choose,” Miller said. “Get on the shuttle, end it quick. Stay here, run out of air, die in your sleep. Take off your helmet, turn to slime.”
“I’ll take my chances here. I’m not being murdered by my own kind.” Reese tore off his helmet, cropped hair plastered to his skull, beads of sweat darkening his fatigues as he ripped off his bio suit. He took in a few deep breaths and smiled, eyes closing as his nostrils flared. “Sweet. Like honeyed roses.”
A spotted rash bloomed on his throat, racing over his chest. He scratched absently, like working away at a mosquito bite. Bubbles and blisters formed —painless, because he still smiled.
Weeping puss burst from the blisters, green-brown slime dripped from dissolving skin. He melted away, like a candle without a flame.
Someone poked the sludge with his boot — number 3628 on his sleeve — and he walked away to board the shuttle. Several people followed him, decision made.
The last three of us shook our heads.
The shuttle doors slammed shut; the engine fired. The mechanical beast rose into the sky, contrail white against green, to collide with a silver missile. Red flair, black smoke; the starburst explosion scattering the shrapnel of our destroyed future.
We sat quietly inside the gazebo, four points in a useless compass, contemplating the cold logic of Mothership.
Rosevelt died first, hyperventilating through the remnants of his oxygen, quickly using it all up. When his life support monitors flatlined and winked out, he looked relaxed like he was sleeping.
Rogers went next. We’d trained together, hoisted each other over walls at boot camp. He was my friend. I held his hand while he let go, wanting to wipe away tears, his and mine, but I couldn’t reach.
My air thinned. My lungs screamed like a drowning swimmer. Claustrophobia wrestled with reason — what did it matter how the end came? I tore off my helmet, gulped in that sweet scent of honeyed roses. Reese was right. It was a better way to let go.
Miller reached for my hand, guiding it up to his own helmet. “Help me,” he whispered, as his fingers fumbled with the air locks.
“Come to join me, for a last breath of air?” The oxygen made me giddy, like tequila in my blood. Miller’s face emerged, so handsome in completion; those dark brown eyes flecked with gold, the knife-edged nose. Hair so thick I couldn’t see his scalp, even with the buzz-cut. When I touched his cheek, tiny blisters broke under my fingertips, slicking clear fluid across his skin.
I closed my eyes, wanting my last vision to be of his face, beautiful and whole. The sun must have set; my skin felt cool. The breeze kissed my skin, drying the sweat of fear, of defeat.
His hand reached for mine, remaining solid. It squeezed again.
“Look,” he said. “Open your eyes.”
Dazzling bursts of lights, blue and green and yellow, danced across the night sky. Aurora Borealis — what would they call it here?
He pulled me to my feet. Crusty scabs itched like crazy, my flesh pock-marked by the strange invading microbe.
“They won’t ever come back for us, will they?”
“No,” he said.
Tiger lily stalks waved in the breeze, rustling and humming vibrations like a song. The moons’ light glimmered through petals so thin and transparent, that tiny veins branched out against the velvety softness. So lovely, so deadly.
His hands caressed my skin, eager for contact, for the companionship of the last living soul.
It’s not wrong to take pleasure this way, so freely given, with someone who could never touch me in that other world. My hands reached out, dancing across his broken skin, hungry for contact, for joy. The last human, won by default.
And he was so beautiful, I couldn’t close my eyes.