The gaunt man stumbled out of the broken building into the knee-deep snow, clutching a brittle black binder. His long, black, centuries-unwashed hair whipped in the wind. He winced at the idea of the precarious object suddenly popping open. Before it could, he stuffed it in his armpit to ensure nothing could weasel out.
He ambled to his idling pickup truck and found some chains behind the seat. With one hand still gripping the object, he used the other to carefully wind and bind it.
He wasn’t relieved until he found a padlock in his forgotten junk under the seat, with which he used to lock the chains securely. Then he threw the entire bundle on the seat beside him and shut the door.
After a year’s worth of searching, he took a moment to stare at it. He nervously smiled at finally finding his last temptation.
He tossed the truck into gear and drove towards the orange horizon.
As the plow glided softly through the snow, he tried remembering what “the others” used to call the binder.
Something with an A…
The snow became thinner the closer he came to the orange glow. Soon the ground all around was dark and barren. Many gorges appeared on either side of the road, and he wondered when he should stop and continue on foot.
He slowed his speed and leaned forward to get a better view out of the windshield. Fortunately, the way was unbroken due to the bedrock ridge that the road was built upon, and he arrived without incident at the horizon. Its black, jagged line split his view in half with the Earth below and the orange light that reached for the stars above.
He parked the truck, took the bundle of chains and opened the door. The heat was unbearable. Sweat came immediately, and the oppression of the air helped him avoid the impending temptation.
Around him the ground laid scorched, and with the surrounding trees and shrubs crisped to charcoal, his tattered rags and overgrown black mane effortlessly blended into the scene. Only his pale face, now reflecting the core’s light, stood apart. His slimy hair and beard whipped in sync with the hurricane winds that threatened to suck him over the edge.
He crept towards the edge of Earth, finding the safest rock outcrop on which to cling. He dropped to his knees and crawled until he could stare over the cusp and into the fiery glow.
Thousands of miles below, the planet core radiated the last of its energy into the bowl-shaped planet.
With twitchy movements, he adjusted himself so his feet casually dangled over the cliff. The core’s heat seeped through his boots, but he didn’t care. He studied the bundle of chains for a brief moment before taking the padlock’s key out of his pocket. He roughly inserted the key and popped it open. Then, he tossed the padlock into the orange glow and unraveled the chains.
The chains came off and his insides squirmed as remembered the name.
Album. Photo album.
He opened it but immediately looked to the stars. All he had to do was drop his head to face the rectangles, to remember what it was like to see another face. Perhaps he could even pretend that the last four-hundred years never happened.
He bit his lip and closed his eyes, then kept them closed as he lowered his head to meet the page. He inhaled, held the air, then exhaled as he kept his lids shut. It took his entire will to keep them so.
I still don’t need you.
He didn’t know if he had to voice the words to make them true, but he didn’t find the need to repeat them. He closed the album so he could reopen his eyes, then he stood up and forced a smile at the stars before extending his arms to release the last temptation into the inferno.
I passed th—
As he angled it, the gale tore the cover loose. Caught off guard, he stared at the exposed page and its barrage of images.
The contents, as clear as the day they were created, stared up at him. The assortment of rectangles featured two-legged figures, each variously adorned in colors. The tannish-white ovals were the worst parts of these images, with their rows of peculiar white shapes peeking out of half-moon creases. For some strange reason the man expected them to speak.
His chest squirmed but he held his composure steady, until one of these figures, a close-up framed with curly golden strands, met his gaze with two sideways teardrops. Their blue allure enchanted him, but before he could savor the sight, that page likewise tore off.
And so, one by one, the pages tore free. His desire to scour each page, only to have it inevitably rip off, solidified the growing void with each departure. A hiccup jolted his stomach, sending a tremor up his throat.
“Ack!” The man flinched, dropping the images into the blinding light.
He stammered and teetered, bending over the cliff’s edge, flailing his arms for balance. With a heave, he regained footing and crouched to safety.
He coughed from the tremor, but nothing came out. Something like a groping hand lingered in his chest, fingering for the right grip.
Don’t need them!
He turned around and looked into the darkness. The fingers kept prodding the gaps in his ribs, as if searching for a way out.
I passed the test. Yes. Time for my new start.
He smirked at the irony in his words, for that’s what the rest of the humans promised when they left to Paradise. His grin faded upon recalling their exact words. “A new…” he said, inaudible in the winds. He stared, unfocused, to merely mouth the second: “…creation.”
The hand poked again.
I don’t need them.
An array of cracking hummed the bedrock, tickling his feet. He looked to the rock, knowing it would soon crumble, but before returning to his truck, he fixed his attention on the largest red star above, where his destination lied–his new home far removed from the crumbling planet Earth.
With the crispness of a machine, he pivoted from the core’s glow and strolled to the truck.
He nearly reached the vehicle when a vigorous quake rattled his feet. Turning back to the planet edge, he stammered when the massive rock, where he had just been standing, fell from sight and carved a ravine nearly to his feet. Eyes wide at the imminent crumble, he sprang towards the truck door but banged his left knee against the truck plow.
He reeled, then limped into the cab and sped into the darkness with the core’s orange glow in his rearview mirror.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Flat woodlands turned to hills, between which the road wound, meandering through shallow valleys. Mountains soon rose on either side and the charred ground grew white once again.
Then snow started to fall as well, forcing him to slow his speed. He squinted through the shower of flakes, lit up by the headlights, to follow what he assumed was still the forest road. A snowdrift exploded over the plow and buried the rest of the truck in a plume. He flipped on the wipers and leaned over the wheel.
He rolled down the windows to feel the air. He flinched at the way it bit his skin. He quickly rolled the window back up, shaking his head and clenching his teeth.Just as he suspected, everything away from the edge of the planet had grown colder since he’d been gone.
Eventually the road emerged into a wide, treeless valley, where the rooftops of his little empire glistened in the orange twilight. Rising above the empty city stood his technological masterpiece, tall enough to rival the surrounding peaks. The falling snow had subsided and the distant light from the core behind him cast the giant spire in a dusky light.
Three rockets were equally spaced around its flanks, each of which, by itself, would’ve dwarfed any vessel NASA launched.
Then he noticed something, shocked he hadn’t seen it sooner. The facility’s lights were off. The Hands, a handful of android workmen he created to build his empire, failed in the simplest of tasks: to keep his ship ready for launch. His gut twisted and his head throbbed at this new nuisance.
Wretched servants! Must I do everything myself?
In minutes he was at the facility, smashing through the half-closed gate, eyes scrambling for the Hands. None were seen, so he plowed his way to the loading dock.
He threw the shifter into park, then groped for his flint and steel in the glovebox just in case he needed the sparks to jump-start something inside. Once he pocketed them, he rummaged behind the seat for his winter clothes. Finally, he grabbed the door handle, sighed in preparation, and flung it open.
The winter air tore into the exposed skin. He quickly fumbled into the jacket before donning hat and gloves, then he trotted through the snow to the man door adjacent to the dock, which was blocked with knee-deep snow. Retrieving his flashlight again, he used the butt-end to rail against the glass. After a few hard hits, it cracked and shattered to the floor inside.
A gust of something grotesque, like a blend of burnt oil and rotten meat, gassed through the opening. He gagged and grumbled through the broken door, kicked the snow off his boots, then led the way with his flashlight.
The stench hung around his nose, even though he didn’t inhale. He couldn’t avoid it, so he tried using his lungs to cough it away, sending white mist into the flashlight beam as he scuttled through the loading dock. Eventually he acclimated to the smell, but maintained a disgusted scowl anyway.
He followed the beam out of the loading dock and into the main hallway, which was more of a wide path through a giant room filled with machinery. The facility was spotless when he left, but now dust caked every surface.
Off to the right sat the large power plant. A year prior it was running brilliantly and he couldn’t fathom how the Hands could have botched their one task. Now he just needed to find them to get a straight explanation.
After a few corners, the stench made a resurgence. It grew stronger with every turn, until, finally, his light beam fell on what he knew would be the culprit: a small crowd of humanoid figures. In his examining beam, their melted faces turned awkwardly towards him.
He originally created them with human faces, but it didn’t take long before their looks haunted him with memories of the time before. Fortunately for the man, taking a blowtorch to their plastic visages was all it took to silence their soulful echoes.
He filled his lungs to speak. “Well, well…” he said, lowering his head, clenching his flashlight at their putridity.
They twitched and hummed, as if their movements were restricted. Their quivering intensified and their voice boxes rattled off a flurry of desperate alarm messages: “Master! Oil, oil, please, oil…”
“Was I not clear?” he said.
“Duties we performed, but–” one said.
“You were gone, master, gone too long,” said another.
“Our oil supply dwindled.”
He stopped at the nearest one and grabbed the back of its neck. “Hand, what is your duty?”
“To serve you, Master.”
“Yes.” He eased his grip. “Me.”
The android turned to him. His gnarled face concealed his left eye while the right glinted blue in the ambient light.
“Me…” he repeated with a faded voice, staring into the iris’ glow. His hand quivered. He involuntarily expelled a gust of misty breath and dropped the metal bar, sending it clanking and ringing on the concrete.
The Hand’s eye gave a kind shift in the brow, and with it, the man glimpsed his own face in the polished cosmetics.
“Me?” he nearly shouted. He clenched harder on the back of the android’s neck and, with a swift pivot in the hips and legs, smashed its forehead on the floor. In a bout of quick, strong motions, he obliterated the Hand until its voice box ceased crackling out pleas.
The man halted when everything above the android’s shoulders laid in bits.
At the sight of their fellow servant, the other Hands did their best to bow, but their hips were stuck.
The man rose to his feet, calm, without a breath of exertion. He threw his hair to the side with a roll of the head, then glared around the fidgeting crowd. “Everything for nothing,” he said, “if you fail to get this powered.”
“Yes, Master, yes,” they said in near unison.
Many of them, through sheer desperation to show penance, broke their mechanics to bow. “Forgive us.”
His face relaxed at remembering his mistake: he never planned to be gone a year, so he never programmed them to maintain themselves in his absence.
“I…” he said after a moment, forcing a subtle nod, “grant mercy, just this once.”
“Countless gratitude, Great One.”
He spun away and returned his flashlight beam to his path, walking briskly to the storage closet wherein the oil was stored. The door’s hinge was rusty, so he had to force it ajar. He found the newest oil can and shook it to see if it was still useable. It sounded like sludge, but he carried it back to the Hands anyway.
“The crumble is coming,” he said. “Do you remember what that means?”
“I don’t think you truly understand.” He popped the cap and raised the can above the closest Hand, pouring it over its head.
“Master,” the Hand said with a flinch, “that is the improper application–”
“Eternal destruction.” He said, pulling out the steel and flint. With a quick twitch of the wrists, he sent a burst of sparks onto the Hand.
In a moment, the automaton’s head and shoulders were aflame. Its voice box garbled incoherent error codes.
“Fire!” The other Hands said. The man walked around them, applying oil to their hips and legs first so they could safely retreat from the flames.
The burning Hand ceased pleading, now sending streams of synthetics down its torso and emitting a horrid stench of burnt electronics and melted plastic.
“Master, fire!” the others kept shouting.
“I’m not interested in drifting on this cold rock for eternity..” He pointed to the other end of the large room, towards the power plant. “Get it going,” He paused to look at the heap of burning parts, “or be decommissioned.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
He stood on the loading ramp, two hundred stories up, awaiting the Hands’ report. A small window offered a last look of Earth.
It was a successful temptation. He leaned over to it, noticing the horizon had grown much closer than anticipated. The orange glow of the core lit up the entire valley.
As everything outside crumbled he imagined his destination, of what it would look like, but the pictures in his mind were only a rehashing of Earth.
Not like Earth, a better Earth.
The golden-haired face from the photo album came to his mind, and with it, the fingers inside inched higher up his ribcage. He bit his lip and imagined the face twisting and melting into that of the Hands. I never needed you.
“Master,” came the voice of the twisted face. “How may we serve you?”
He imagined a blowtorch, and ignited it. I’ll prove you wrong.
“Master, how may we serve you?” The twisted face repeated, loud enough to break his daydream. “Salvation is prepared for launch. How may we serve you now?”
He took a moment, wondering why he chose such a dumb name for the craft. In his peripheral sight, the twisted faces stood waiting for his response. “You are relieved, my children.”
“As you wish, Master.” The sound of awkward machinations hummed as they bowed and pattered away.
“Wait, no.” He kept looking out the window. “There is something you can do.”
They returned and gave another bow. “Yes?”
“Gather all the Hands, and position yourselves beneath the launch thrusters.” He looked over to them. “Let me know how well they ignite during launch.”
“We are at your service, Master.” They bowed a third time, then departed.
He inhaled the piercing air through his nostrils and held it in his lungs.
Last breath of Earth.
He went into the cockpit and closed the hatch. Once strapped in the seat, he flipped switches and pressed buttons, retracting the ramp and activated the preliminary launch systems.
The beast rumbled. After the computer automatically completed its pre-flight startup sequence, he was ready to ignite the launch engines.
He exhaled until his lungs compressed completely and nodded in a clumsy attempt at closure. He turned the switch and everything rattled as his masterpiece leapt from the ground. The snow in the valley instantly evaporated as the flames erupted from the exhaust vents. The facility caved inwards from the inferno, absorbing the Hands into a tomb of melted rock and metal. A few avalanches made their way down the surrounding mountains, quickly fizzling to steam, followed by the mountains cracking and throwing chunks to the valley floor.
It only took ten seconds to reach 5 Gs, even though the thrusters were at their minimum output. He grinned through the gravity forces at the way his special, lightweight blend of fuels performed.
The propulsion intensified, and after the mountains cracked, a canyon formed, which carved the entire planet in two. As it did, gravity lost its hold and everything went silent. The weightlessness lifted him in his seat, causing the belt to press into his chest and waist. Staring out the window, into the star-speckled black canvas, he cycled a few steady airless breaths.
The ship spiraled around to give him a view at the pulverized Earth. Its pieces gradually orbited around the glowing core, occasionally bumping into each other. Satisfied at his work, he turned away to prepare the interstellar voyage.
Before commencing his journey, however, he confirmed the readiness of the sleep module because inducing comatose for the 230-year trip to his new planet was his little way of rewarding himself. When the module was set, he got inside, shoved the IV into his arm and taped it, then closed the lid and strapped his body down. The computer screen above him displayed a prompt to ignite the Stellar Thrusters.
He went to accept when, as if in a taunt, the blue teardrops returned to his mind.
What do you want?
They matched his question with a blank gaze.
Want to see what you missed?
The face shifted, forming what appeared to be a subtle grin, but it blurred and he couldn’t be sure. He blamed it on the IV fluids.
Well, do you?
The golden strands rustled in an imagined breeze.
His twitchy hand pressed the screen to take him back to the ship’s autopilot settings.
Cancel Autopilot to Destination?
He jabbed the affirmative and reentered different coordinates. This new journey would prove slightly longer, but it was the destination that caused his fingers to quiver as he held them over the screen’s confirmation:
Set course to New Earth?
He raised his eyebrows at the preposterous prompt, then reclaimed his frown to turn to where the blue teardrops stared back. This is your idea. I’ll prove you wrong.
The ship only had fuel for one trip. With this in mind, he hesitated before finalizing the ignition. The fingers tickled his ribs again, but before they could do more, he confirmed the prompt.
The craft responded with a jolt. G-forces pulled at his insides with enough to chase the fingers from his insides. For the first time in four centuries, he closed his eyes to sleep. It would take the craft a month to safely accelerate to top speed, but before the first minute was over, he had drifted into oblivion.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The module opened, but it took him a few hours to fully open his eyes. He took his time sitting up, uneasy at the return of weightlessness, for the ship had stopped its rotating and was now ready for descent. His atrophied muscles barely functioned as he tested his arms and neck.
He inhaled just to feel the vacuum of space in his lungs, which seemed to be enough to clear his mind somewhat. He removed the IV and levitated out of the module and over to a window facing his destination.
New Earth laid in the aura of its sun, which peeked over the planet’s horizon. The star’s golden rays illuminated clouds, oceans and terrain.
The potential glories were ready to be built, and he closed his eyes in the fantasy. He pictured himself landing in their midst, emerging from the craft.
Will they bow?
He opened his eyes again to see that the golden rays had grown.
The prodding fingers came again, now stronger in his weak body.
His insides were hollow, as if he were hungry.
No, of course not.
He grinned away the odd hollowness.
Not when I’m done with it.
Then an unforeseen question struck: What will I say to them?
Words flashed through his mind, but he couldn’t decide which ones to use. He had memorized volumes on Earth, but their array failed to supply anything worthy of his arrival.
Then I’ll just say nothing.
But his decision came too late–or too uncertain. A trickle of disorder from the mental hiccup sent his mind into a cascade. Like a return to gravity, his posture was thrown. Even in weightlessness he found the need to resist collapsing.
Then a horde of faces leapt to his mind like a house of mirrors. Every android, unmarred and flawless, stared at him with a semblance he had tried in vain to melt away. He closed his eyes but they were still there, giving him no escape. He thought he could forget whose image in which they were created, but he now realized the folly of trying to forget oneself.
But that was just the start. A barrage of other faces, smiles and forgotten expressions from long-buried memories enveloped him. They joined with the androids to form an even greater audience, all leering in pity at his hunkered spectacle.
The writhing fingers sprang inside, leaping from his ribs to clench his windpipe, and for the first time in centuries he panicked for a lack of air. It only lasted a moment, but it was enough for the lowest depths of memory to surface.
A familiar woman smiled.
He couldn’t remember if he had any children, but he wasn’t about to pry the memory to be sure. Whoever she was, the image was too much. The soul couldn’t be silenced.
No, no, no!
He threw himself from the little window, gliding to the ship controls.
“No!” his voice brought no noise in the vacuum of space. He pressed buttons in a flurry, then pulled himself to the escape pod to find its small screen, linked to the main computer, reading the incorrect setting:
Automated landing sequence initiated. Ship will begin descent in thirty seconds.
“What? No!” He gasped more silent pleas as he hurled himself back to the panel with a demonic twist in his lips.
“Not ‘land,’ crash! Destroy!” He found the correct buttons this time, but the landing course was already set.
He glared at the screen, clenching the sides of the monitor until its screen cracked. He howled a silent bellow and his skull nearly fractured from the effort. Whatever fluids that happened to be left inside him came spewing out in globs. He writhed, weightlessly spiraling as he clawed out handfuls of hair.
He returned to the escape pod, pulled himself inside and wrenched it shut. His sight melted. His hand quaked as it came down on the release lever. Whatever vision he originally had for this venture was now gone.
He pulled the lever and a blast of air launched the pod from the ship, spiraling it towards black space. He watched the planet shrink as the distance between himself and New Earth grew, squinting against the glaring sunlight.
The frail hand inched up to his throat. With nothing with which to distract himself, and having nowhere to flee, it finally crept into his mouth. He gagged, but all that came out was a bit of liquid out of his eyes, wobbled weightless in front of him.The sight of his own tears gave him a feeling akin to a cold sweat, so he closed his eyes and curled into a ball, rubbing his shoulders for warmth. But it only brought shivers.
He began to grope at his face like a potter vainly attempting to fix a ruined jar. He started to gouge and claw, inserting his fingers into his eye sockets to yank his skull into a less human form.
But his immortal body resisted the prodding. Even so, he kept his face in the grip of his rough massage.
So he remained in the middle of the cramped pod, hovering in weightlessness as it hurled him into the frigid darkness of space, ever farther from humanity’s new home. His mind fixated on the growing space between and he slipped a grin between his quivering hands.