Another one from deep in the archives. I post this now as it connects thematically to last week’s review of Interstellar. Indeed, if you have seen the film, you may find some parallels with this story’s depiction of a dying world…
Humanity Behind (written 2007)
By night I woke, and thought I hark’d
My planet’s mournful cry:
A plea for help in thought and deed,
For else t’would surely die,
We scoffed, and fled, and fail’d to see
The flaw of all mankind:
We took the virus with us; Left
Anon. (Date Unknown)
In the days before she left Earth forever, Izzie went for one final walk across the dying planet. It was barely light outside, but dim sparks of illumination seemed to float within the encroaching haze, fireflies in the mist, offering the promise of dawn. If Izzie closed her eyes, she could imagine them, flitting in and out of the fog’s dark shadows, ever moving, fleeing from the oncoming storm. Against all of knowledge and reason, and only when she closed her eyes, she could almost believe that they were really there, just hiding, and that they would find some way to escape the failing world. When she opened her eyes again, the dim lights would remain, but the fireflies would be gone, vanished to extinction with all life.
With all life, but for one, final, victorious species.
Humanity would escape to the stars.
Humanity would survive.
The huge military compound sat silently amidst the dust, its towering fences surrounding Izzie on all sides. When she left the spaceship, the throngs of people were almost stifling, but as she moved slowly towards the edge of the compound, the crowds began to thin, and by the time she reached the huge iron gates that formed one of the entrances, there was almost enough room to walk normally. With no-one left outside the gates, the border patrols were nowhere to be seen, and Izzie attracted only the vague curiosity of those nearby as she effortlessly scaled the iron bars, until she was perched atop the structure, a proud and noble eagle surveying her surroundings, watching, with wise eyes, the final preparations for The Final Judgement. In the middle of the compound, the huge spacecraft loomed large in the ever-present mist, a testament to human ingenuity and invention, to the truth of Darwin’s promise that the fittest would survive. A million tonnes of metal and lights that shone through the darkness, offering a safe haven for a million humans on their journey to the stars.
It was one of ten thousand, it was one of the last to leave, and it was christened The Final Judgement, in honour of the End of Days.
Izzie looked briefly towards the sky, thinking of all the colossal ships that had already reached the frontier of space, thinking of all the ten billion members of humanity who had been forced to leave the world. She smiled grimly, with kind, resigned eyes, then descended the outside of the gates, her wiry arms gripping the bars tightly as she clambered down. The military compound was technically International Land, officiated by the United Nations, owned by no-one, which meant that, as she jumped and landed in the dry, dead soil below, her feet instantly surrounded by clouds of dust, Izzie was now the sole occupant of the United States of America. She staggered at the thought and dropped to her knees.
There she stayed for some time, kneeling on the aching ground below, gazing out towards the infinite horizon, an endlessly swirling sequence of smoke and smog, devoid of emotion, devoid of joy and pain and loss, devoid of life and breath. The roaring sound of the multitudes behind her faded into insignificance, and in that single moment Izzie felt utterly alone, as if the crowds and constant claustrophobia had melted into extinction, and she was the last surviving member of the human race.
The feeling passed: she rose to her feet, and, without looking back, walked away into the desert of sand and nothingness.
Dawn came some time later as Izzie approached the outskirts of a long-abandoned slum. The sun was finally high enough for its rays to filter through the layers of thickened air that perpetually shrouded the ground. Its light seeped through slowly, lethargically caressing the very tops of the dilapidated buildings, then dripping down the sides until the town was finally bathed in the green, sickly brightness of day. She remembered, fondly, her grandmother’s stories of an age when dawn was a very different animal, before it too had been driven to extinction.
Then she closed her eyes and remembered the sole time, more than two decades ago, when she had finally experienced her Grandmother’s Dawn.
She was eight years old as she stood on top of Mount Everest, one of the last places on Earth were snow still clung to survival, one of the last places on Earth where the sun could rise. Thousands of tourists chattered excitedly, hugging themselves tightly in the cold, waiting impatiently on the darkened viewstation. The young girl clutched at the remnants of melted snow in her pocket, disappointed that it was already fading away. Her grandmother stood proudly to the side, a fraying scarf around her neck, her tired, wrinkled face staring defiantly towards the horizon.
And the sky was clear,
And the sun appeared.
It shattered the darkness, gracefully, effortlessly, the mountains instantly drenched in nectar, the whole planet reaching majestically towards the heavens.
The girl’s eyes opened wide, and for the first time, she saw the world.
She rubbed her eyes, desperate to memorise the scene, but when her vision cleared, the world she saw had vanished. She grasped desperately in her pockets but the snow, like the life her grandmother once knew, had long since faded away.
In the washed-out glare that enveloped the fading planet, she saw the remnants of that sunrise, fireflies in the mist.
Izzie trudged on, as if in a trance, through the poverty-stricken slum. Most of the houses had been hastily constructed from recycled metals and plastics; many were missing walls, or even a roof. She had lived in one, of course, as had most of the population of Earth. Their planet had become too crowded, unable to sustain the ever-growing population, and with the loss of natural resources and vegetation, the strain on the world’s governments to provide food had been too great. Humanity had struggled on for decades in this state of abject poverty, hurtling through space on an impotent rock.
She paused at the memorial in the middle of the town. A huge, iron statue, twisted into a ghoulishly unfamiliar shape, casting its macabre shadow over the sand. It was covered in dust but the plaque was still readable.
“In Memory of a Real Tree,” murmured Izzie to herself. She nodded, at once fascinated and repelled by the thought of such things filling the surface of the world so long ago. Even the statue itself was from a different time, when the carbon dioxide levels could be controlled artificially and the loss of trees was still widely considered a matter of nostalgia, rather than concern. In her mind’s eye, the trees filled the world once more, an army of living demons, determined to hold her accountable.
In spite of the sticky humidity, Izzie shivered.
And then –
There was the sudden feeling of being watched, and out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw something move. A shadowy wraith, no more, no less.
She stared, but saw nothing else. The willowy, child-like shape had gone, if it had ever been there at all.
Izzie turned and ran.
It was almost midday and the sun hovered brightly above, a shimmering mirage in the midst of the oily sky. Izzie made her weary way across the surface of the Earth for the very last time, her feet sinking repeatedly into the gritty sand below. Ahead, in the distance, the iron fences of the military compound were visible through the haze, a welcome oasis from the silent void. She tried to walk faster, regretting her decision to venture out one last time, eager only for the security offered by the gates and the ship that would become her home. The desert grasped at her feet, pulling her down, and for one fleeting instant, it was quicksand, and Izzie was swallowed whole by her despair. She shook her head free of the vision and continued, always glancing behind her, watching, waiting, for the hidden child that never appeared.
The Final Judgement loomed ever closer, a stark reminder of the acute poverty into which humanity had slipped in its final days on Earth. Izzie remembered the announcements vividly, broadcast on all channels, over all possible mediums. The future of humanity was in doubt and there was only one way to secure it. There was a suitable new world on the other side of the galaxy. All the planet’s remaining resources would be harnessed to create the ships that would save them from impending extinction. The first, Humanity’s Ark, was unveiled in all its splendour, with promises of ten thousand more to follow.
Now they were built – and most had left – and soon Izzie would take her place, free of the flood, amongst the stars.
The clamour of the crowds rose up in front of her as she staggered towards the gates. She gripped the iron bars tightly, the feeling of the cool metal flowing through her, calming her mind. She had been foolish to believe that there was anything left for her in the world behind. It was a desolate wasteland and she was glad to make good her escape. She scaled the gates once more, climbing towards her future, looking ever forwards to the answers that lay beyond.
The desert lay empty once more.
In the days that followed, the crowds were forced to stay on the ship as it prepared for departure, while military personnel swept the surrounding area, checking that no-one had been left behind. Not a soul was found outside of the compound.
On the third day of the travellers’ confinement, the huge engines whirred into life without warning, rumbling loudly and sending disconcerting shockwaves through the living areas of the craft. Departure was imminent.
Izzie had been to watch some of the other spaceships take flight, often sitting alone on a nearby hill, observing silently from a distance. The surrounding land would suddenly spark into life, a searing light that far outstripped anything the sun could produce. A huge sonic blast would ring out, visibly rippling over the evacuated flatlands, and the ship, for just a moment, would be engulfed by flames. Then the all-consuming fire would shoot violently upwards, a terrifying tower from the heart of a star – and then it would implode, sucked into oblivion, and the massive craft would be gone. If Izzie flicked her eyes skywards, she could sometimes catch the trailing smoke that the accelerating giant had already left far behind.
Not this time though. This time there would be no-one to wave goodbye.
The rumbling grew ever louder. Izzie braced herself as she walked down one of the corridors on the forty-second level, following directions to one of its many viewstations. When she reached the lounge, there were no free seats, so she sat, cross-legged on the floor, directly in front of the vast window. Not a real window, of course, but a viewscreen, specifically designed to simulate the actual view through the wall of implacable metal. She had heard reports from the ships that had already reached space –
When you broke clear into the vast expanse of the universe,
When you could see the spinning void mere metres from your eyes,
When you felt for all the broken world as if you were swimming through infinity,
Then you would cry.
Beside her, she felt a presence. A young man, maybe of similar age to her, was now sitting next to her, cross-legged and watching her.
“Hi,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Luke.”
“Hi,” said Izzie, shaking his hand firmly. He felt cold to the touch.
“You going to tell me your name?” asked the man.
“Sorry,” said Izzie. “I’m not used to this. I’m Izzie.”
“Not used to talking?”
Izzie nodded. “Nice to meet you,” she said, as an afterthought.
They sat, in silence, as their prison, their home, broke free of the ground and began a final orbit of the planet. Beneath them, the Earth spun languidly on, doomed to orbit the sun for eons to come, long after it would cease to really be.
“I wrote a poem,” said Luke eventually, as they watched the sweeping land beneath them. He handed a scrap of paper to Izzie and watched her while she read.
Izzie’s eyes caressed the words carefully, and she nodded when she had finished. “Is that really how you feel?” she asked.
Luke smiled. “You keep it,” he said, as she tried to hand the poem back to him. He tapped his head. “It’s all up here.”
Izzie thought of her grandmother, and she thought of her grandmother’s dawn,
And she tried to imagine that, one day, she could have her own grandchildren, And she tried to imagine that, one day, there might be a new dawn for them to see.
“I don’t think it’s all bad,” she said softly.
But Luke seemed not to be listening. His gaze was drawn, once more, to the viewscreen and the planet below. So Izzie watched as the land continued to fall away, until it began to fall through her mind.
And now it was different. Now they had left her desert behind and ventured to the less fortunate parts of the world. Now the slums were so large that they were clearly visible, even from space. Now the whole land was covered by pitiful houses, stretching out over the continents, swelling sores that seemed to swallow the ground whole.
And, just for a moment, Izzie allowed herself to imagine the truth. And she saw, beneath her, with perfect clarity, the billions of humans living in those pitiful houses, still clinging desperately to life. And then they were but one – a single, shadowy wraith, a child, crying out in an abandoned slum, in an abandoned desert, on an abandoned world.
And she embraced the truth that she had been so determined to ignore.
Ten billion humans had escaped. Most had been left behind.
So Izzie did indeed cry as they broke through the atmosphere and hurtled into deepest space, and her final image of the broken world was blurred with tears.
The Earth spun languidly on, and then it was gone.
The spaceship, and Izzie, fled into the darkness.