As the dark sky vignettes with bleeding reds and pinks, the comfort of the cool night passes and the scorching sun rears its ugly head once again. Though it’s been what feels like an age since I’ve felt its heat a phantom burn still peels away at my mind each new day. Seven-hundred and eighty-two days since any sign of life, seven-hundred and eighty-two days since the birds fell from the sky, the oceans boiled alive, and man fell to his knees. Counting the days had kept me sane for over two years now but each day it takes longer to recall how long it had truly been. The days had begun to blend into one endless orange sea; a journey with no end, and as my mind ages, no beginning either.
Clambering up a steep dune, my rusted gears struggle as I reach its peak. Taking a moment to scan the new horizon, I search for a pocket of green where the cruel sun hadn’t yet reached. The shimmering sea of sand, its waves shifting as the hot wind washes over the world. Like every summit I reach, the view is always as bleak as what I leave behind; barren, coated in a thick paint of fire-scorched earth. As I begin my descent down the dune I feel a fierce tug from the umbilical cord. The pod that drags behind me suddenly stuck, the rear engine sputtering and choking on inhaled sand, unable to stay afloat. Reaching my hand within, I clear out the trapped debris. With a fierce cough it breathes once more, a blast of air shooting from the engines as it lifts from the ground and begins to hover.
Standing over the pod I tap at the screen, the transition lens fading from a deep black to a clear window. I stare inside at the woman within, sound asleep, envious of myself enjoying such a peaceful nap through this eternal hell. A lone cloud breaks apart to allow the sun to beat down once again, the glass turning dark as I’m met with a reflection I do my best to avoid. Two glowing white lights for eyes - not the beautiful greens I once saw the world through. Somewhere beneath these tangled wires, peeling blue paint and rusted metal, was my mind; detached from the body I dragged behind me.
For over two years I’ve walked this dead earth, and now I find myself outside the building where it all started, the concrete shaved smooth from the years of sand. A gentle and eerie groan echoes out as the building struggles to stay standing - with no doubt in my mind that on my next visit it would be nothing but a pile of rubble, and soon after another dune I’d have to ascend. I was certain this LABS droid would fall long before I reached this point again; its metal rusted, batteries burnt out. The conditions of this world are too harsh even for the non-living. Coiling the umbilical cord around my fist, I press my foot to the pod and contemplate pulling it free, while also setting myself free. I’d likely die from shock before even opening my eyes, but at least in my final moments I’d feel something. The agony and fear alone would be a greater gift than the fate of humanity’s future forced upon me by a desperate man.
I can still hear his panicked breaths and feel the gust of dry air rushing in as he opened the life support pod while my eyes struggled to adjust to the blinding light behind him. His blistered face leant over me, incoherent babbling spilling from crusted lips as he poured life around my body. His eyes yellow and the vessels broken, tears drying and flaking away as his face twisted into one of anguish. A mighty drone of terror sounded out as everything came to life in screams and yells, a world in panic, but just as quickly as the sound erupted it fell silent. The pod slammed shut.
Looking beside me I tried to make sense of it all and understand what he’d placed in my pod. There were handfuls of seeds along with sperm and egg samples in glass vials, and notebooks filled with knowledge my drowsy mind couldn’t comprehend. If I’d known my next breath were to be my last, I would have savoured it. The taste of death flooded my remaining senses as my mind travelled along the tubes and I awoke within the Life And Body Support droid, surrounded by blistered corpses and attached by a thread to my real body.
As my arm falls limp I let the umbilical cord slip from my fingers and coil on the ground, quickly swallowed up by the ever-hungry sand. This cancer ridden body of mine was doomed to follow me to the end of days.
With little imagination I can see the city as it was before, in the final days that I was well enough to roam while the streets were still full. Life thrummed around me; a thousand conversations blending into one monotonous tone and an orchestra of engines all rumbling as they waited in endless traffic. Despite it being the dead of winter the heat had reached record highs - out of collective ignorance the world hoped the rug they’d swept that knowledge under wouldn’t catch light and bring the house down. The melted asphalt of the road like quicksand as it tries its hardest to pull me under, out of my daydreams and back into a scorched reality. Freeing myself from the bubbling black I catch sight of a body slumped against a cracked brick wall, their chin nestled deep within their chest.
Lifting the bleached white skull I stare into the hollow eyes and introduce myself, almost fearful of a response. I watch as the jaw of the man drops and hangs loose. Jumping back in foolish glee I wait, but receive no reply. Nothing but a body chewed up by the heat and spat out on the curb. No one left to talk to but myself, and the self I drag behind me.
As the ocean had all but dried up I chose to walk beneath a large bridge rather than across, as with each gust of wind it would sing like whale song, an echo of stress ringing from one cable to the next. Many had already snapped, dangling loose from the structure like threads from tattered cloth. The ocean floor littered with flakes of red as the dried paint snows around me, a satisfying crunch to each step like crisp autumn leaves. The world was not long for colour, as like this bridge and myself, paint can only cling to metal for so long before it chips away into a bleak white horizon like the dead ocean ahead of me.
Crushing pale dead coral beneath my feet, I find myself obsessing over a small puddle. No bigger than the palm of my hand, I gently press the tip of my finger to the surface and watch the small rings pulse out with each thrum of my engine. I wondered if any life exists within; perhaps bacteria, microscopic and unbothered by the boiling temperature of the water - now dead from whatever I had introduced into their small pocket of life. Just like the sun, have I wreaked havoc on this child of the ocean? Removing my finger I stare intently, yet as the day passes and night comes the surface stays still.
I’d never considered what I would do if I found life, nor how much breathable air I’d enjoy before the cancer caught up with my body. Would I see enough day’s pass to watch the seeds I plant bloom, the child I impregnate myself with take their first steps? Or would they stay trapped like me, in what was meant to keep them alive? I was no Eve - I’d never wanted to be a mother, nor a saviour. It was us that brought this world to its end so it’s only fitting that it’s our end too. I’ll plant the seeds, I’ll sow whatever living earth I find with as much life as I carry, then I’ll pull the plug and watch my pocket of green spread as far as I can until my last breath.
At long last the endless sea of dried salt comes to an end, the days and nights passing at such a speed it all blurred into one purple moment, stars bleeding streaks of silver across the sky. Once again met with a desert, another dried ocean, another dead city, another loop around this barren world. I can no longer recall how many days it’s been - the purpose of counting to keep my sanity intact seemed pointless now. Years pass before a thought crosses my mind, months come and go where I never look back to check if my body still follows, days where I stop to look into the sun. I was always warned never to stare but now I find myself lost in its glow and the coiling bursts of fire spreading across its surface, wishing I could reach my hand within and melt away into nothing.
I’m sure I’ve spent longer in this body now than I have in my one of flesh. Decades, maybe centuries have come and gone, yet this body keeps on moving. I had grown so confident that it would fail, that I’d be set free, but as long as the sun burns I keep moving forward. My free will nothing more than an illusion - I’m an appliance, no sentient thought or desire left.
With my mind lost in the drab brown and orange color palette of the world I carelessly make my way down a dune, but at last this body reaches its limit as my left leg seizes and locks in place. A barrage of errors flood my vision as I begin to tumble, the umbilical cord coiling around me like a serpent. My sight vignettes into something darker than black… nothing.
A searing heat stings my lungs as I wake with a gasp of agony and fear, this ability to feel was no gift at all. Even with my eyes tight shut the bright sun bleeds pure blinding white into them, each breath like I was drinking fire. With the ground like hot coals on my skin I search all around me for the pod, once again its nose in the sand. Placing my hand inside the intake, I grasp at the trapped sand and clear it out. A blast of cool air breathes past my skin, goosebumps washing over me as I feel a moment of pure bliss. With all my strength I push the now floating pod down the dune and slide down after. As I do my best to ignore the absence of pain - and creeping numbness on my back, the skin surely bubbling red - I crawl my way over to the LABS droid.
“Help me,” I mewl. I think my voice was once soft, now coarse and grating like it was slithering through gravel. “Please, help.” But the droid merely lays there, its eyes dull and empty, not an ounce of myself left within.
As the sun reflects off the metal of the droid I knew the mistake I had made by keeping them open, the white quickly turning to black. Without a moment to grieve I sink my hand deep within the hot ash to search for the cord. Clenching my teeth and not caring that my tongue stays trapped in the vice as my mouth fills with blood. With much desperation I find the end of the umbilical cord and pull my hand free from the fire, burnt to a crisp. Like my back it had fallen numb, no pain left to be felt but a gentle and unnerving tingle. Plugging the cord back into the pod I summon my last ounce of strength and pull my weary body back inside and close the lid. A reaffirming dull tone of confirmation rings out as the pod slowly fills with a cool liquid. Hoping it will soothe my blistered skin it instead merely wakes it from the numbness. My screams of pain echoing around as the liquid pours down my throat and fills my lungs, soon falling into a nightmarish slumber as I wake again within the mind of the droid.
Uncoiling myself from the dead snake I pop my knee back into place and clear out the sludge and clumps of rust. Functional again, I stand and slowly make my way over to the pod. With sand around me caked in dried blood I feel as though a mother might - a growing dread in her gut as she approaches a silent cradle. Looking within I see myself, whereas before it seemed as though I was enjoying a peaceful nap, I now see a face I no longer recognize. Frozen in terror, with blistered red skin and bloodshot yellow-spotted eyes, the pupils a dull grey and smaller than a pinpoint. Though it had a pulse, what good could this body do now?
Once again painfully sentient, the boredom sets in as I trudge through the short night and carve long strides in the cooling sands. I wish my fall could have happened now while the sun sleeps and not when it was at its highest and most cruel. Perhaps my burns would have been less severe, my sight not lost. Like those that came before me I choose ignorance as my best friend - a problem faced is a problem true. Though like most problems there’s never just one, a slack developing in my shoulders as the sway of my arms becomes stiff. Soon after the joints in my legs turn rigid also. My feet dragging more and more in the sand as I struggle to lift them. Everything slowing to a crawl, my mind falling tired as the landscape around me closes in, shifting into one endless line of blue night.
Checking my battery levels I’m shocked at the percentage. I’d never once seen it dip below seventy percent, but now it sits in the single digits and falling fast. The ground growing closer as my body no longer has the power to hold itself up, a soft thud disturbing the sand around me as the metal hits the floor. Panicking, I run a diagnostic and see that the solar panels on my back were damaged, most likely when I fell down the dune. My battery had been draining all day long, and the reserves hadn’t been charging. Now I’m watching as each second it edges closer to zero. Soon once again I’d find myself thawed out within the pod, trapped as the transition lens loses power and I’m cooked alive.
As my mind tires more and fear turns to numb calmness, the sand beside my hand begins to rumble, shifting unlike anything I’d ever seen. Suddenly it sinks, a deep hole left in its place. Confident in my insanity I watch as a large black scorpion emerges and crawls towards me. Stepping onto the palm of my hand it inspects each finger with its claws, stinger shining silver in the moonlight. With the last percent of my power I bring my hand to a fist, crushing it. I’d never had to consider it before but LABS droids can run on organic matter, be it for only a small amount of time. Holding my hand above my head I let what was left of the bug slip between my fingers and enter my intake, a phantom gag reflex as my body shakes alive. Only five percent added, enough to crawl at least. Next, I find a lizard, scurrying to safety beneath the sands. Reaching in after it I pull it up by the tail, my own fear outweighing the guilt… ten percent.
My mind clear, I realise I’d finally found what I’d been searching for all these years - life. For the rest of the night I follow the path before me, the palette changing from night-dyed browns to lively greens. The sound of wind whistling through grass and the hum of insects in the distance. The sense of hope I’d long thought I’d lost was now as alive as the land around me. Come morning I had reached a large lake, reeds sprouting across the shoreline. The sun was reflecting off the surface, although it seemed gentler in this land, distant and shy. Getting closer I see a tunnel had been carved into the ground, leading its way beneath the lake; a large door at its end, made of metal that had not yet rusted, well-kept and clean.
Inspecting it further a large beam of red light washes over me, shortly followed by a burst of fog seeping from beneath the door as it lifts. A person walks out dressed in a shiny suit of white sturdy cloth, with large boots and a visor that hides their face. As they wave me inside and the door closes, I check the pod still follows. Surrounding us was a tunnel of glass, the lake full of lively fish swimming around, painting the person's white suit in shimmering blues. Taking off the helmet he revealed himself to be an elderly man. He seemed ecstatic to see me, though he spoke in a language I couldn’t quite understand. As we reach the end of the tunnel my body begins to seize and stiffen again, the organic material all but used up as I collapse. Blurs of men and women rush past me, surrounding the pod as everything turns dark. What I had hoped to leave behind had followed me to the end, and as my lungs fill with cooled air, I make sure to savour this last breath.