Prussian Capricorn

“To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.”
C.G. Jung

 

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Jake Pink, stardate 135.2341, Entry 1:

Indeed, it has been a very rough landing. Fortunately, no one is dead. And the Hull Integrity systems are all green, meaning no one is dying…yet. The comm. system however, is severely damaged. All our SOS signals are traveling at subluminal speeds. It will take years before they reach any allied forces.

My life as a soldier has been marked primarily with fear. First there was the fear of being drafted to the vanguard. This was before I realized that the attack from the enemy was so devastating that even the rearguard was not safe. Then, there was the fear of being slain in battle. This was before our ship was knocked off course in the heat of battle, by an asteroid, and away from our unit. I realized then that there were far worse things than death in battle. Finally, there came the fear of dying slowly in space. This was before we crash landed on the third moon of the seventh planet of a star system no one had bothered to name. A moon full of creatures and hostiles which can’t be described in any other way than as abominations of evolution.

After the crash, we had all been relieved, temporarily. In time, the existential question, of if this fate was better than any of the previous three, had begun to plague us.

I always assumed that soldiers felt no fear. That the camaraderie, the bravery and the selflessness all acted synergistically to dispel fear. But this is not the case. Fear is omnipresent, even among those who pretend otherwise. In the first human world war, as soldiers marched through trenches and sang at the top of their voices, there was always the fear, deep within, that the homes they had left to protect, would be visited by death, would be visited by dark angels in the form of hydrogen bombs, in their absence.

Four centuries later, not much has changed. Light-years away from my home, I wonder if the place has been overrun by the enemy. If their pestilence has destroyed my family, the cornfields, and the man I love.

Sometimes I read stories of the first world war, stories about soldiers who accidentally wander into minefields. Sometimes I am beleaguered with the idea, that there is nothing accidental about it. Sometimes I wonder what the twenty fourth century equivalent of walking into a minefield is.

 

 

Jake Pink, stardate 137.2341, Entry 2:

We are all finding ways of coping with our predicament. Very different ways. The captain has retreated into silence. Words between her and us are always at a bare minimum. I think she blames herself for everything that has happened, but she never apologizes. Perhaps due to some masochistic notion that to apologize is an admission of weakness. Hence, she keeps silent and spends her time alone.

Glory, the systems engineer, has much to do. She is always tinkering with some part of the ship, trying to get things working. It seems she barely has time to contemplate our predicament. Of the five other crew members, Glory appears to be coping the best.

The first officer and botanist, Hawa, has given up altogether on sobriety and its complications. Her alcoholism and recreational drug use is unlike anything I have ever seen. I wonder what happens once her stash runs out. I wonder how large of a stash it is. I wonder what other self destructive tendencies she is likely to indulge in.

Hernandez, the astrobiologist, has perhaps the most regular response to our situation. He cries, almost all the time. He is the only one who seems actively to be panicking.

As for me, my form of escapism usually manifests itself in an obsessive compulsive addiction to high strategy video games. However, this is not the case now. I am quite preoccupied with something else: My great great great grandfather’s journal. Howard Leonard Pink had been a scientist for the American army during world war 2. His team was responsible for developing “unconventional” weapons and strategies for the war effort. Some of the experiments he performed have me absolutely astonished. Being halfway through, I cannot, for the life of me, put down the book until I have read it all.

It seems that no crew member is in the right state of mind. Since the mental assessment and evaluation programs are being ignored, someone has to take on the role of a therapist. That person can’t be me. Though I may be aware of the emotional nuances of my crewmates, I have absolutely no desire to address them.

 

 

Jake Pink, stardate 142.2341, Entry 3:

The preliminary scouting reports are in. The drones have brought back useful information. This moon, for the most part has tolerable atmospheric levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The natural atmosphere is not going to kill us; nonetheless, there is still danger. Danger manifested in the form of numerous fauna, flora and microbes.

All the samples collected seem to contain a particularly potent neurotoxin. A chemical capable of altering the human mind in strange ways, seemingly omnipresent in every single species. Initial tests have shown that the neurotoxin is capable of inducing schizophrenia, multiple personality disorders, mania and even death. The atmosphere isn’t going to kill us alright, but virtually every other thing might.

This is useful information, considering the fact that we will have to go out soon. Hernandez is absolutely terrified at this prospect and has made it a point to make himself scarce in order not to be chosen. This strategy is never going to work, considering the fact that as an astrobiologist, he is the only one qualified enough for such a mission. We will have to go out of the ship, in order to collect samples from various plants and prepare fuel. This excites no one.

 

 

Excerpt from the journal of Dr.Howard Leonard Pink, February 4, 1943.

Desperation is at an all time high, considering the fact that we seem to be losing the war, and losing quickly. The higher ups have certainly put the pressure on, and many of our most controversial projects are now being given the green light. This means that I will inevitably have the funding to work on the project that has intrigued me since my days as a young undergraduate at Harvard College.

Though the prospects are bleak, I cannot help myself from feeling excited. The only uncertainty I have about the future, manifests itself in the words of my old biology professor, “In the pursuit of scientific achievement, a conscience is as essential as a lab coat.” 

These words have echoed in my consciousness, ever since I heard them. These words have made me contemplate if indeed my research is ethical. Most of the scientific community will undoubtedly frown upon my work, but I cannot be timid. Especially not now. The enemy cannot be allowed to have the upper hand, the war must be won.

If I must lose my conscience, my spirit and my morality that the ideals of my motherland may survive, then so be it. Like the moon, the Prussian Capricorn will eclipse the land of our enemies and cast their future in darkness. So help me God.

 

 

Jake Pink, stardate 145.2341, Entry 3:

I don’t know exactly why I did it, but I doubt it was out of compassion. Perhaps I was just fed up of hearing Hernandez whimpering like a beaten dog. I offered to take his place on the field during the mission. I would be his hands, and he would be my eyes and ears.

I don’t know exactly why I did it, but I really shouldn’t have. As far as the captain and crew knew, the mission was a success. We are already in the process of extracting the organic compounds from the plant samples I brought back for our fuel.

What they do not know is that during the mission, my leg was entangled in a vine, and in trying to free myself, a small tear was created in the suit. What they do not know is that my body has been compromised by a neurotoxin and I might be dead in a few hours. They do not know, and they might never find out. I want to tell Glory about it, but I have no guarantee that she won’t tell the captain. I do not know how the captain will respond to such information. Marooning me on this moon is certainly not outside the scope of her imagination.

I have incinerated the hazmat suit, destroying the evidence. For now, I will keep silent, as the neurotoxin alters my brain chemistry. For now, I will keep silent and hope that I do not die. For now, I will keep silent and read about my great great great grandfather’s exploits.

 

 

Excerpt from the journal of Dr.Howard Leonard Pink, May 18, 1943

I suppose one could say that my project was a success. The outcome was exactly what I expected, but, was it worth the cost?

My lab partner, Dr.Walter Grey, has said that it is for the greater good. But these words just sound hollow to me. A bland justification of unspeakable horrors.

In my eagerness to save the world, I may have transformed into the very beasts I want to destroy. No matter how hard I try, I can see no significant difference between myself and the enemy.

These soldiers, would undoubtedly give their very lives, in order to win the war. But what I subjected them to, is a fate worse than death.

The five of them are locked up beneath the lab and are kept heavily sedated. The dose of the sedative is five times stronger than what would be given to a regular adult male, yet I wonder if it will be enough. We absolutely cannot risk them gaining consciousness before they are delivered to the frontlines, for the sake of everyone in the lab.  

 

 

 

Excerpt from the journal of Dr.Howard Leonard Pink, May 23, 1943

I have become possessed by the notion, that my creations should never see the light of day. No enemy, no matter how hated, should be left at the hands of my creations. Perhaps, I should destroy them before the General has the opportunity to use them.

I have not been able to sleep in weeks. I lie awake at night in fear of the abominations I have created. Every time I close my eyes, all I can see, is the image of my lab assistant, Florence, being ripped to shreds by the creatures.

This must be the same caliber of regret experienced by Alfred Nobel on invention of dynamite, only, this time, amplified by a thousand fold.

Yes, these abominations must be destroyed. Not for my peace of mind, but in respect to the soldiers who sacrificed their bodies that they may came to life.

I will slip a poison inside the sedative. If that fails to work, I pray for the life of me and my children, that their skin is not too hard for bullets. So help me God.   

 

 

Jake Pink, stardate 147.2341, Entry 4:

 It has been 48 hours since exposure. I am not dead yet, but I may be soon. My body, in an attempt to expel the neurotoxin, has subjected me to several bouts of nausea and diarrhea. The crew are starting to notice that I am growing thin. And I know Hernandez is suspicious.

I am changing in other ways too. Lately, I have been experiencing lapses in consciousness. It is as if I become an observer in someone else’s life. It is as if I am here, yet I am not. Like I am alternating between two time frames. Past and present, coalescing into one.

Sometimes I don’t know who I am. Am I a soldier trapped on a hostile moon? Am I a scientist, performing experiments for the war effort?

I know the toxin has potent effects on the brain, but I never expected the effects to be this surreal. Sometimes it seems like I am regressing, to a state ten years younger than I am now. Other times, It seems that my consciousness, is being invaded by a mind which is not mine. By an intelligence which is not mine. By concerns which are not mine. By fears which are not mine.

How much longer will I continue to remain Jake Pink? Moments of clarity are so rare, and I hold tightly onto them, for fear that I am lost in a space which is not.

 

 

Howard Leonard Pink, stardate 148.2341, Entry 5:

I have managed to kill 4 of the beasts. The fifth one realized what was happening and fled out of the ship and into the forest before I had my chance. I am preparing now to chase it. As my pulse rifle charges, I think it is prudent to document the exterminations.

I caught two of them unawares. Shots to the head while they slumbered in a drunken stupor. I knocked the third unconscious with the butt of my rifle, and administered a potent poison intravenously. The fourth tried to hide, but his audible whimpers gave away his position. One shot to the head and two to the chest did the job. It is interesting to note his last words: “It’s doing this to you, this place. It’s corrupted your mind.”

I do not know what those words mean. They can be mere nonsense, or they can be useful. But nevertheless, they did not save his life.

My will to complete my mission is even stronger now. Not even a single one of these abominations must not be allowed to escape. I must destroy my creations.

My pulse rifle is ready, my conscience is clearing. The Prussian Capricorn must never see the light of day.

 

 

Emergency Transmission #78, Dr.Glory Stewart.

The story of our experiences here on this moon may never reach anyone. They may linger on in the fabric of space time as electromagnetic waves, never reaching an antenna. Never reaching any recipients. But I record now in the hopes that this message reaches someone. This is because I have nothing but hope to hold on to.

I am not recording in the hope of being rescued. I am only recording in order for people to know our names, and to remember us. All six of us, especially Jake Pink.

Though it may seem like there is no logical explanation to Jake’s actions, the Jake I know would never betray his own comrades like this. He was a kind and compassionate man and I loved him deeply.

Even now, I feel nothing but love for Jake. All my anger is instead directed to the governments that ordered us to fight and to die for their interests.

I may be dead before sunrise. It is only a matter of time until he catches me.

To any who receive this message, this moon must be avoided at all costs. Everything about this place breeds death.

To any who receive this message, know that we were committed to the cause and remained loyal to the very last second.

To any who receive this message, remember our names and our legacy.

End of transmission.

 

 

 

Howard Leonard Pink, stardate 149.2341, Entry 6:

My work is complete. All five of the creatures are now dead. Before I shot the last creature, something odd happened. As I looked into her face, it was as if I lost consciousness for an instant. It was as of my consciousness had been overtaken by another. Just for a short while, I questioned my identity.

Though all five of the creatures are now dead, my conscience is still not clear. It seems it will take more than destroying my work to atone for my sins.

Perhaps one more life needs to be taken. It seems only fair, considering the fact that I destroyed so many lives in order to make this project a reality. Perhaps this is the price I must pay for being overly ambitious. For neglecting to be as moral as I was scientific. For neglecting to be as ethical as I was driven. Why should I continue to live, as others died?

What do I have to live for? I have failed my unit, I have failed my country and I have failed my friends.

I may go down in history as an evil man, but, let it not be said that I did not try my utmost to atone for my sins.

This will be my final entry in this journal. My pulse rifle still has one charge.

 

 

 

 

 

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A Conspiracy of The Sands

I took the stars from your eyes and then,

I made a map

And I knew that somehow, I would find my way back

Then I heard your heart beating and it was in the darkness too

So I stayed in the darkness with you

-Cosmic Love

 

 

CHAPTER 1 – BONDS

It was dark. It was always dark these days for Azir. A consequence of being in a location where the suns rays just could not reach. And no one cared enough to provide illumination by other means. But while vision was being denied, other senses were left perfectly intact.

There was hearing for example: In the dungeon, there was no way for the prisoners to record the motion of the sun as it traversed the sky. Hence the concept of time had changed for them. Time was now a thing measured by the intensity of the screams. Louder and louder and louder, until the door of one’s cell came creaking open.

Odour too was left in perfect condition. The progress of a dead body’s decay, could always be tracked by the worsening of the stench. For many, the rotting of a body was not something they would wish to dwell on, but for Azir, given his previous profession, it was something he was always occupied with. It was how he killed time, when he was not being tortured:

An accumulation of acid in the body, self digestion, the muscles harden.

The body is bloating. Almost twice its size now. The insects are feasting. Insects…and other things.

The internal organs, are collapsing. Collapsing, failing, losing integrity.

In time, just a skeleton will remain. A mere shade of a once glorious creature. A reminder to the living, that all is futile.

Odour had uses beyond tracking the decay of dead bodies though. There was another scent which Azir knew intimately. More intimately that the scents of dead bodies. It was the stench of the dwarf. The jailor, whose name Azir did not know, yet was the only human Azir ever interacted with. Their “relationship”, was very complicated.

Another sense left intact was touch—no, was pain. And since Azir only experienced pain when the imp was present, he had come to perceive the imp as a mediator to the sensation.

The relationship between dominant and submissive is very rarely simple. To the uninitiated, it would seem trivial that the relationship could be anything other than hate-hate. But down here in the dungeon, the rules were different. On most days, the dwarf came in carrying a plethora of torture devices. Tools not too dissimilar from the ones Azir had used in his past life. However where Azir had used his tools to heal, to treat and to cure, the imp used his tools to torture, to desecrate and to kill.  On those days, Azir experienced pain he did not know was possible to bear.

On other days however, the dwarf came in with nothing. He would just lie by Azir all day, stroking his hair, and sobbing. For hours and hours and hours. Initially, Azir was highly suspicious of this behavior. He wondered if this was part of the torture: Sporadically replacing displays of disdain with displays of affection so that there was a psychological edge. What would it be today? The serrated knife or the caressing hand?

Perhaps these random bouts of affection were genuine. If so, did the Jailor behave this way with other prisoners? Was this behavior nothing more than a personality disorder or was Azir unique to him in some way?

Azir himself could not recall if he had met the imp in his previous life. He had treated many people then, and the jailor or a family member of his could easily have been one of them. There was no way of knowing for sure. The dwarf was mute and anytime he opened his toothless mouth, rivulets of saliva run down the corners and often fell on Azir’s face. Holding any kind of conversation was definitely out of the question.

This was Azir’s life now. Once he had been one of the most powerful men in the city. But now he was just an object. The recipient of either excruciating pain or misplaced displays of affection. There was no middle ground.

Most prisoners had given up hope of ever breathing in fresh air, of ever tasting delicious food, of ever feeling the heat of the sun on their face, but Azir still had not reached that breaking point. Whenever the dwarf seared his flesh, Azir’s desire to flee the dungeon was reinforced. Whenever the dwarf gave him a kiss his belief that there was a way, was consolidated.

 

 

CHAPTER 2 – FREEDOM

 

It was getting warmer and warmer. The sun would be rising soon. Being right in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but stretches of sand around him and the blazing unforgiving sun above him was not a position Azir fancied to be in. He had to move soon, but his strength was fading.

His only garment was a heavily worn rag. He had no footwear to protect the soles of his feet. Months of malnutrition had left his physique in less than perfect condition and carrying his body was a real work out. He was in desperate need of a walking stick, but instead, all he had was a lamp. A lamp stolen during his escape in order to illuminate the way and failing to fulfill that purpose as he could not light it. Though it weighed him down, Azir could not bring himself to throw the lamp away. There was just something about it.

He lay in a supine position. Larger particles of sand dug into his back as he stared at the night sky. Sights he had seen before: Twinkling stars in elaborate configurations, streaks as white as milk. Its beauty was not a thing he could appreciate anymore. Now the sky was merely a point on which he fixated his eyes.

He was deep in thought now…..Had his escape really been worth it? Was it better to die alone in the desert, than alone in the dungeon? Was the cost of his freedom worth the reality?

Eventually he began to think of his previous life. Before he became Azir the slave. When he was Azir the court physician.

Back then, he had been one of the personal advisors of the Sultan. He was rich and powerful and very few people dared to defy him.

Azir had always been cut from a different cloth than his colleagues. While they feasted and drank with the Sultan, he was always away in his sanctum learning and investigating. Of course there were nighttime escapades of the flesh, but not of the carnal kind. Azir was always cutting, dissecting, investigating.

One day, the Sultans daughter and her handmaiden had been involved in a horse riding accident. Though both bodies had been brought to him in critical condition, Azir was only expected to save one. Of course, no one expected him to ask himself “which one?”

Both girls were injured, but quite differently. The Sultan’s daughter, Pharah, had a severe injury in the head. Surely if he saved her, she would be impaired for life. A hollow, lacking the ability to talk, to think and to create. Would he allow her to exist as an empty vessel, abandoned and ignored as she wasted away?  Or would he give her a graceful death?

The other girl was quite treatable; though she was losing blood at an accelerated rate. He had to take action immediately.

Azir believed that it was the duty of a physician to determine not just how a person should be saved but also if a person should be saved. However, Azir’s desire to only give people lives they would want to live, lives that were worth living, was misconstrued as playing god.

The Sultan, overcome with grief, did not understand Azir’s reasoning. He did not want to understand. His pearl, his little princess, was at the door of death and in his eyes, the only man who could save her had chosen not to. His sorrow was the catalyst for Azir’s destruction.

Thus, the royal guard marched into Azir’s sanctorum and put him in chains. They dragged him through the streets as they set his library, containing scrolls upon scrolls of valuable research, on fire. Years of hard work disappearing in seconds. The Sultan’s fury did not end there. Azir’s wife and children were captured, stripped naked and tied up at the town square; denied of food and water and left to bake in the scorching heat. In time, Azir learned that they had been stoned to death by a mob.

Azir the physician died that day with them and Azir the slave was born.  A being born with an intense hatred for the Sultan and his people. He gave them life, he gave them solace, and this was how they decided to repay him. Azir the physician had nothing to live for, but Azir the slave went through every day in that hellhole of a dungeon in the hopes that someday he might escape and the Sultan would feel his wrath.

Let me live, so the Sultan will feel my pain. Let me live, so his people will perish by my hand.

It became some sort of a mantra for him, pushing him through hours of torture, day after day after hateful day.

Hot coals would be pressed against his flesh. Let me live. Splinters would be pushed beneath his fingernails. So the Sultan and his ilk may know my wrath. They were words uttered not just with his mouth, but with his heart. Formed not just with thoughts, but with his soul.

They were words spoken to no one in particular, but what Azir did not know at the time was that some dark god was listening.

 

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Lying in the desert, Azir could not make sense of the trajectory of his life, try as he may. He had gone from street rat, to errand boy, to student, to apprentice, to physician, to court physician, to advisor-in-chief, to slave, to nobody. Was the Sultan really going to get away with his crimes? Would the murders of his wife and little girls go unpunished? Would the people continue to go about their lives unbothered? It was too much to think about.

Hush. No more thoughts. Now I rest.

The sun was rising. Azir did not care.

 

 

Chapter 3 – FORTUNE

On the third day of their travels, they found the body. They were returning to the city after their most recent mission in the crypts had been unsuccessful when they saw it. Where most people would see just a body, they saw an opportunity. The dead pharaohs had not been munificent. Was the desert, desolate as it was, being generous instead?

The one called Ahmed was the first to dismount the camel. He tightened his scarf around his head in order to protect his ears from the roaring winds and knelt down by the body partially submerged in the sand. He discovered then that it was not a corpse as he thought. It also didn’t seem to be carrying anything of value. It was fast swinging from being an opportunity to being a liability.

Ahmed was contemplating what to do when his companion, Set, asked, “Anything useful?”

Ahmed hesitated and said, “It’s still alive.”

They had both dismounted now. Kneeling in the sand and examining the body. It was wretched and emaciated and the eyes were milky white. Unseeing eyes. Destroyed by staring into the sun for too long. No one would blame them for assuming it was a corpse. It was all but dead.

“We should leave him,” Set said.

“No. Just because we are grave robbers doesn’t mean we live without honor,” Ahmed replied.

“So what do you want to do? Carry him across the desert and back into the city? You don’t even know this man!”

“To leave him now would be very cruel.”

“But we have very little food Ahmed. Our water is running out.”

“Let me worry about that.”

Set wanted to protest further, but given his position as the younger of the two men, he was unlikely to prevail. Hence he kept his mouth shut.

Thus, they placed him on a mat, strapped it to the camel and dragged him across the desert.

 

…………………………

 

On the fifth day of their travels, it became apparent to Ahmed that being honorable was doing nothing other than hurting him. The stranger they found in the desert was dead weight. Set refused to share any of his rations with him, hence it was up to Ahmed to keep the stranger fed. He deprived himself, so he could sustain the stranger. And for what?

Set was growing increasing vocal about his annoyance. His body language had changed significantly and his words were hostile. Ever since they came across the stranger, He seemed to perpetually be in a state of irritation.

They had stopped so the camel could rest. Set was sitting in the sand, leaning against the kneeling camel. Ahmed was pacing, thinking about his predicament. It was late afternoon, their shadows were growing longer and longer.

The stranger made a sound but Ahmed could not discern what he said. He knelt down and listened more closely.

“Water”

Ahmed immediately moved for the water pouch. As he reached out to remove it from the saddle, he felt something holding him back.

Set gripped his upper arm and whispered “don’t”.

Ahmed turned to face the boy. His features were firmly set into an expression of determination. Ten years his junior, yet he had the audacity. Ahmed wrested his arm free of Set’s grip and retrieved the water pouch from the saddle. He started towards the stranger but something else blocked his path. This time it was long, curved and shone brilliantly in the sunlight. It was Set’s sword.

“What is the meaning of this, boy?” Ahmed said.

“I’m sick of your nonsense Ahmed,” Set said. “You lead me hundreds of leagues to a tomb in the middle of nowhere with nothing to show for it. Then, you bring this corpse along with us just so it can use up our rations. Why do you care so much? So you can prove to yourself that you are more than just a thief? So you can atone for sins performed ages ago? I will not allow you to kill us slowly. Not anymore.”

Ahmed could tell that from the tone of his voice and the look on his face, that the boy was very serious.

“Move away boy”, Ahmed said. “I will not ask again.”

“Go to hell!”

Set charged at Ahmed, with his sword high above his head, screaming. A sound which was manifested by a desire to kill. A sound so feral that it jolted the camel into wakefulness.

Ahmed stepped to the side, avoiding Set’s blow, and while the momentum of his strike still drove the boy forward, he unsheathed his cutlass with quick movements and drew a crescent in the air, cutting through Sets torso.

The boy fell to the ground, lifeless. The camel let out a scream equally as terrifying as the one made a few moments before. As the boy’s blood soaked the sand, the camel could not be pacified.

Ahmed casually stepped over the boy’s body and delivered the water pouch to the stranger. The stranger sucked at it peacefully, seemingly oblivious to the horrifying incident that had occurred moments before. Pity that it had come to this. I actually liked him a bit, Ahmed thought.

It was dusk and they had to be moving soon. Ahmed did not bother burying the boy. He merely stripped him of his garments and footwear and left him in a pool of his own bile and guts. As he moved to dress the stranger, he noticed, for the first time, the lamp.

Initially, it was visible only as a bulge in the stranger’s cloak. Ahmed investigated closely, and saw it for the first time, in its full glory.

It was gold and silver, adorned with rubies glowing pale red in the waning sunlight. Ahmed was beyond euphoric. The expedition had not been a total failure after all. An antique like this was sure to fetch over a thousand rupees in the black markets back in the city. Who would have thought, that a corpse halfway into the underworld would bring him such good fortune. It probably should have occurred to him then that gifts delivered from the jaws of death were never as they seemed to be.

The lamp felt heavy in Ahmed’s hands. A little too heavy, despite being made of gold and silver. Almost suspiciously heavy. His greed was taking his imagination places now. What could possibly be inside? Some golden coins? A couple of diamonds?

In his impatience, in his excitement, he pried open the lid, and all hell broke loose.

Black smoke shot out of the lamp with such fury that it knocked Ahmed on his back. Growing and growing in size until it filled up his entire vision. The camel was hysterical and surely would have fled but for the bonds fastening it in place. The black smoke was shaping itself into a distinct form now.

A head, eyes, a mouth, a torso, arms, arms adorned with golden bracelets. No, not bracelets. Shackles.

In a voice as loud as thunder, the genie said, “I have one wish to grant. One wish, and I will be free of these bonds. Speak, if you dare.”

Ahmed still lay on the ground, spectacularly in shock and absolutely overwhelmed. His mind was having a very hard time processing everything. While every other aspect of his being was struggling to perceive his current reality, the opportunist in his brain was very alert.

“One wish? I thought genies granted three”, he said. Much to his surprise, his voice was not hoarse, even though his throat felt as dry as the dessert. A dryness so severe, it hurt.

The genie, it seemed to Ahmed, sighed. When he did so, his features became less defined, losing all form and sharpness temporarily. “Two wishes, have already been granted”

“Very well then”, Ahmed said. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. “I wish to come in possession of a treasure larger than the great pyramids.”

“Mmmm….On your next expedition out of the city, your wish will be granted.”

And with that the shackles on the genie’s wrists began to glow. They glowed to a red brightness and exploded, freeing the demon.

“And now, I am free”, it said, as it dissipated into the night.

 

………………………….

 

As he rode back into the city with the stranger, Ahmed kept thinking about his good fortune. It seemed too good to be true, but alas, who was he to question the gods?

He rode quickly, seeking to rid himself of the stranger and prepare himself for his next expedition. Against all odds, the stranger had miraculously survived, growing in strength as he received appropriate nourishment and care. His vision, however, did not return. He would probably live the rest of his life in the streets of the city as a nameless beggar, forever in an eternal midnight.

This was good for Ahmed. He did not want to be found, he did not want to be asked for a share.

As day broke, the great walls of the city came into view. This was the first time that the sight of those walls did not fill Ahmed with depression. For once, they signified hope. For once, they signified opportunity.

 

CHAPTER 4 – BIRTH

Sheik Habib Al Mouktom woke up with a smile on his face. In the Sycamore trees just outside his window, birds tweeted a most melodious tune. Today would be a good day indeed.

For months, preparations had been ongoing, all leading up to this day. Today was the day of his daughter’s wedding. A marriage to none other than the crown prince himself.

The day itself had been carefully selected. Every astronomer and soothsayer in the city had been consulted and all had approved. The cola nuts, the tea leaves and the stars all agreed, this was a day of fortune. This was the day of affluence.

Sheik Habib was fully awake now and was walking around his quarters ensuring that all was in place for the ceremony. He had so many servants that he didn’t even bother to ask their names. They scurried about the premises carrying cutlery, garments and of course, wine. Lots and lots of wine. Wine obtained from vineyards in the most verdant oases.

Sometimes, to the Sheik, it all seemed so surreal. Ten years ago, he never would have believed that he would be standing where he was now. Back then, he went by a different name. They called him Ahmed Al Mouktom and he made his living by doing the most dishonorable work; robbing the graves of the fallen kings.

One day however, his life took a turn for the better. By supernatural means, the site of his greatest bounty ever was revealed to him. He laundered that money by posing as a trader of fine garments and in time he rose to become the wealthiest merchant in the entire city. And it was all thanks to a body in the sand.

He chuckled at his own good fortune.

 

……………………………….

 

The guests started to come in one by one. These were no ordinary men and women. They were people with enough influence to make the sun go round. One by one they came and the Sheik greeted each and every one of them by his doorstep. The dining and wining would begin soon.

By noon, the Sheik’s mood had changed significantly. He had been filled with so much happiness in the morning, but now, all he could feel was dysphoria. Even the sound of his daughter’s laughter could not lift his spirits.

He left the guests and the party and stood on the balcony of his bedroom as dark thoughts consumed him. As if to mirror the state of his mind, the sky became engulfed by dark clouds. The streets cleared up as darkness fell over the city. Odd. No rain had been forecast for this day.

He looked beyond the city walls and towards to horizon. In the distance, a dark cloud seemed to be approaching the city at great speed. Like a storm. Like the hand of darkness. The Sheik felt nauseous.

What he did not know was that for the past ten years, a curse had been in gestation and now it was finally mature. A curse forged in darkness and paid by pain, suffering, sorrow and death. A curse intended not just for one man, but for an entire city. A curse forged between a man and a demon.

The first wish had been one pleading for survival. Let me live.

The second wish had been one seeking retribution. So the Sultan and his people may feel my pain.

Both had been granted, and the scientist known as Azir had been delivered from the mouth of the abyss and into the desert. There he came upon the thief known as Ahmed, who made the final wish with a blood sacrifice. A trivial request for blood money. That too had been granted with ease, but had forever implicated him in the cycle of vengeance.

As Ahmed grew in wealth, so did his power. As Ahmed inherited the city, he also inherited the sins of its people.

Now the hour of accountability was nigh and the forces of darkness where upon the city. Forces persuaded by an old blind wizard. A wizard who had once been a kind man. A wizard whose touch was formerly of prosperity and not of blight.

The forces of darkness where upon the city. As part of the cycle of vengeance, a cycle powered by hatred, there would be culling, and there would be reaving.

 

 

The End.

 

 

Dark MATTER

If I tried hard enough, I could probably remember the moment of my birth. I never tried hard enough however. It was some sort of unspoken rule governing omnipotent beings. We never looked to far back, or too far forward either. Uncertainty was a coping mechanism for us; it was how we maintained our sanity. For beings like me, it was possible to simultaneously approximate both the momentum and the position of a subatomic particle, but we went about our lives pretending otherwise.

I had been to earth before. I didn’t remember when, or why, but I knew I had been there before. On my return, the constellations in the sky, the fascinating fauna and flora, the beautiful landscape all sang hymns to me, and filled me with nostalgia. This planet was a beautiful product of chaos.

Much had changed since I had been here, and I wanted to experience, with very minimal use of faculties, the state of things now. It was some sort of game I played. Learning the biology and culture of the planets I visited. It didn’t matter that I had visited them before, it didn’t matter that I didn’t even have to visit them. I wasn’t going to let omniscience get in the way of my fun.

……….

The earth was home to many species. They were evolving impressively. With regards to anatomy, I was always interested in seeing how different structures arose from various environmental conditions. The degree of diversity was exciting. Some were upright, others were hunched. Bipedal, tetrapedal. Tentacles, wings, legs. It filled me with ecstasy.

Their brains weren’t doing so badly either. Many were showing signs of intelligence and one particular specie appeared to be self aware. They called themselves Homo sapiens. Wise man. How naïve.

Staying on the macroscopic scale, it was hard to go about the planet while avoiding the humans. They simply dominated everything. I did not wish to meddle in the lives of self-aware species. I found them too predictable. But against my better judgment, I found myself looking too long at humankind.

This was a fatal mistake.

…………

All sentient species believe they are important, but this is nothing more than a self-comforting lie. A lie produced by a mind which is as much a random arrangement of atoms as the nebulae which grace the silent expanses of the cosmos. In my eyes, nebulae and neurons are different configurations of the same thing. One configuration facilitates fluorescence and another facilitates thought. What annoys me so much about sentient beings is their ego. Ego is an unavoidable byproduct of their infantile minds. Minds so underdeveloped that in all theories of cosmic structure, their planet lies at the center of all things. Pathetic.

Human’s had great potential, but watching them…..was frustrating. They were intelligent, yet they still behaved like animals. They were compassionate, yet they were selfish. They were creative, yet they were destructive. They were intelligent, yet they were crude. With base emotions like greed and self-indulgence, they affected not just themselves, but the lives of other organisms. This made me….angry.

Time had no meaning for me, but at this point, I had probably been on the earth for a long period. I had marveled at many things, and I had discovered many things, and I was starting to be consumed with the idea that the whole planet would be better, if humans seized to exist.

I loved the earth and I started to see it as a garden. Humans were nothing more than weeds that stunted the growth of roses and tulips. They were nothing more than rodents that nibbled at vines and roots. To me, life is beautiful when it is young. The more it advances, the more boring it becomes. Humans were at an extremity on the spectrum of evolution, and it was not the part I found favorable. It had to be done, they had to go.

It would be done.

Any day now.

And yet, I continued to hesitate. It wasn’t because I was incompetent. I had the power to make their whole star system disappear in nanoseconds. It was just….it was just……

It was because of Mahansamatma. My human.

I was watching him draw one night, without realizing I had made myself visible. It was only after he stared in my direction for a prolonged period of time that I realized he was staring at me. Perhaps I should have erased his memory at that point, but something held me back. His was immensely creative. The way he combined color and tone to bring the creatures of his imagination to life was astounding.

That night, for the very first time in a long time, I did something I hadn’t done. I made a new friend.

I wasn’t in the habit of making friends with underdeveloped members of an underdeveloped specie, but there was just something about his childlike innocence. The purity, the nascence.

I visited every night for many nights. We talked about all sorts of things. His obsession female counterparts his age. How cool it would be to have a lightsaber. How many different stars there were in the sky. Whether a Tyrannosaurus or Triceratops would win in a fight.

He told me about his religion, about the idols he prayed to every night. Hoping for a better life, hoping that he would get the opportunity at a formal education.

My encounters with him sparked a desire I had never experienced before. I almost wished I was human. Almost.

………………..

I have lived long enough to bear testament to the fact that the only constant in the universe is change. One day, things changed, for the worse.

I held his limp body in my arms. I saw blood trickle down his face and onto my palms. His eyes were still open; blue, beautiful and unseeing. His golden blond hair was stained with blood. His bones were broken, crushed. His life had been taken. Beaten to death, by bullies.

It had been a while since I experienced these emotions. It had been so long that I almost forgot their names. Now, kneeling in a pool of blood, they came to me one by one. Pain, anguish, suffering.

Anger

Mahansamatma was not just my human, I was his god. And in that moment, I wanted so much, to grip the entire planet in my hand and crush it to bits. I wanted to collapse the very spaces between the subatomic particles. I wanted to delete this planet, not just from space, but from time.

But I didn’t. I was no animal. I was no human. Reacting to events with emotion was beneath me.

I must admit, that I never imagined that the death of a single life form, particularly a human, would affect me in any way. Mahansamatma’s death hurt, like nails scraping on my soul.

The pain was too much to bear, hence I numbed myself. Once again, I allowed my behavior to be governed by logic and rationality. Emotions fizzled from my consciousness, like a blot of ink in a pool of water.

From a deterministic point of view, there was no need to save Mahansamatma. He had been dead long before I met him. Holding him in my arms, as his cells died, one by one, was nothing other than a scathing reminder that human lives were nothing more than infinitesimal flashes in the sea of infinity that was the cosmos.

I no longer felt anger towards humankind, but, I still had to decide their fate. I looked forward into the future, but the view was fuzzy. My uncertainty had created two possible realities. One where the earth was, and another where the earth wasn’t.

From one perspective, there was no difference between the two realities. If I looked forward far enough, both realities would be identical. The earth’s sun would eventually go nova, swallowing the entire star system as it died. Would it really hurt anyone if the earth’s inevitable demise came 5 billion years earlier?

The answer to that question was more complicated than it appeared. My experiences with Mahansamatma had changed me. There was no denying that. Also, I felt for him. There was no denying that. I could not destroy the earth totally, without destroying him as well. And if I did that, was I not as evil as his killers?

To allow him to be erased from history would be an act of violence. Violence was primitive, violence was beneath me. And yet the temptation was there. Lingering, like a resistant strain of microbes upon exposure to an antibiotic. No, Ideas were much more powerful and much more difficult to kill than any single life form.

My thoughts were dominated by a single image; a rock in space exploding into a million tiny pieces. It was an image that began to feel like an obligation. A loose end that needed to be tied up. A rash that needed desperately to be scratched.

…………….

I drifted through space once more, going beyond the solar system. An amorphous blob heavy with emotion. Behind me was a pale, blue dot. A dot containing over a billion different lifeforms, a dying ecosystem and fond memories of a human boy. Behind me was a pale blue dot, twinkling, like a pearl in the deep dark blue.

The Reaper’s Conundrum

It was the busiest day of my existence.

On most days, I was everywhere. Almost simultaneously. But things were still generally slow enough that I could feel the weight of every soul, as I carried it to the afterlife. As I soared through the sky with my black wings, I would see, in its entirety, the life lived. The lies told, the prejudices held, the emotion, raw and unrestrained. I would live, as they died.

But that day was different, I really had never been so busy. Everything happened at once, and I am ashamed to admit that I was overwhelmed.

In moments, 99% of the human population was wiped out. And I had to be there, for each and every single one of them, so no one was lost. So every soul found its way to its final destination; hell, heaven and nothingness.

 

Almost as quickly as it began, it was over, and in the aftermath, there was an emptiness more overwhelming than anything I had ever experienced. The humans had come, the humans had lived, the humans had loved, the humans had destroyed, and now the humans were gone. And with this realization, I experienced a feeling I had never known before. I initially mistook it for boredom, but it was much more nuanced. It was ennui.

I never had this much free time before. There was always some soul to carry. A man, shot dead on his way home, wondering if his wife would ever find his secret stash of porn magazines. A girl, kidnapped while walking down a dark road, deflowered and left for dead, screaming with no voice, wondering why this was such a cruel world, wondering, as nervous impulses collapsed, as neurons died, as her breath left her body. A baby, struggling to survive the first few hours of infancy struggling and failing, letting go. Every death was unique, yet they were all identical. In a bed surrounded by loved ones or in the alley of some unknown street, the end result was the same. I would bear them, with my darkin wings, up and up and up. And now, there was no one to carry.

It was ennui, but it would soon become existential angst. What would a flower be, if it could not smell pretty and be colorful? What would a sunrise be, if it could not inspire? What would the night sky be, if it wasn’t a map? What was I, if I had no souls to reap?

For days and days, I pondered, and I soon grew alarmed. Was I still a reaper if I had no sack of souls? Was I still the ferryman of the dead if I had no passengers? Was I still the curator of the crypts if there were no new arrivals? Teleologically, I had already ceased to exist. Soon, would my corporeal form fade too?

But alas! There are still humans alive. The one percent! I looked down at the earth, at the aftermath, at the post-apocalyptic hellscape. Yes, indeed, some humans had survived, and they were dying.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but their impending departure was bad news for me. If I was to have a job still, or even a being, then they couldn’t all die at once. Oh no. There had to be sustainable death.

 

If there was any hope, it remained with the 1%. Well the 0.98% now. With every passing moment their numbers waned, and if there was no change, the human race would undoubtedly head to oblivion.

They were scattered across the globe now. A diverse group of humans. Various ethnicities, races and religions were represented. There were very few things linking them together. For some it was luck, but most others shared aberrations in their genetic material. Regardless of being fortified by millennia of natural selection, their tenacity would be short lived. The first storm in the nuclear winter had taken heavy casualties. In the blizzards succeeding it, the survivors would die at an exponential rate. Until the reaction completed. Until there was no more death. Until I ceased to exist.

I was never one to meddle in the affairs of living humans. Once, I bumped into a kid, leading to his untimely demise, and that was it. I promised to never walk among them. Sometimes they refuse to let go of their loved ones. They hang on so tight that when I come for a soul, I usually end up taking two. I had as much interest in living humans as they did a colony of bees. Beyond the occasional curiosity, I couldn’t care less. That had to change now. I would have to become “involved”.

 

……….

 

For a while, I walked among the humans. When they felt fear, I was there to comfort them. When they felt loneliness, I was there to provide companionship. When they were ignorant, I provided illumination. I never appeared twice in the same form, and I never stayed too long. If I did, they would be seeking to “elevate” my status and make me a leader. A king perhaps, or even a god. This, I could not allow.

In time, my efforts bore fruit. My machinations had brought the humans together and soon, they began to rebuild. This time however, they took things slowly. The fact that the environment was conspiring to kill them all had forged strong bonds between them all. There was no racial or religious tension. There was no “us” and “them”. There was just an “us”. This meant that for a long time, there would be no murder. Some still died, mostly the newborn babies. But I had hope that there would soon be so much more.

Sometimes I questioned myself. With the death of racism and religious extremism, would humans still die in the thousands? I always put myself at ease however. I knew, as strongly as I knew what I was, that in time, they would argue. Arguments would turn into quarrels, quarrels would turn into fights. Fights that wouldn’t easily be made up because of the formation of ideologies. Idealogies which would persist, Ideologies which would separate. Ideologies which would provoke. Someone would die, someone had to be there. My scythe was ready, my wings yearned for the black sky.

 

 

Echo

The sun was fully above the horizon now but the hills and the forest prevented the valley from being fully illuminated. Light still managed to slip between the tree trunks and the hill peaks, but the scene was still dull. It was morning, and the birds started to chirp. Caterpillars crawled slowly along stems and branches. Flowers opened up, revealing bright colors and sweet scents. Scents which combined with the lingering petrichor of the past nights rainfall to produce a pleasant and enchanting odour. The valley was alive.

In his stillness, Emorin could almost hear the plants growing. He would have loved to enjoy the moment a longer, but sightseeing had its downsides. Particularly when he had to hide in a bush to do it. His body started to itch, and he couldn’t tell if it was because of the insects or the moistened blades of grass cutting his body. He had to move soon. After all, he was on a mission.

He could hear them nesting above him, cawing and tweeting. They fluttered from branch to branch, and he could tell, from the several flaps it took for them to become airborne, and the persistent rustling of leaves after they had landed on a branch, that they were heavy with meat.

He had to be quiet now. He had encountered this species before, and they were skittish. Silently, he changed his position. Squatting behind the bush, he pulled his slingshot out of his belt. He had spent the previous evening looking for perfectly rounded rocks. From the few he kept in his pouch, he selected one and proceeded to load his weapon.

Emorin was excited to see what the slingshot could do. He had spent many nights carving it into its perfect “Y” shape. He hadn’t been granted an opportunity to test it, too late for that now. There was a nagging feeling in his mind, but with all his willpower, he ignored it. How could it fail with a shape like that? As if geometry was all there was to it.

With the shaft in his right hand, he used his left to pull the projectile back with all his might. The rubber strips, ceremonially named, were not nearly elastic enough and he had to compensate now with an extraordinary amount of force. He aimed above him, looking for the clear trajectory towards his sedentary target. Everything was perfect. He was ready for the shot. He was ready to release. He was ready for the kill.

Unfortunately for him, he pulled too hard, and the slingshot broke. The pent up momentum drove his fist into his eye. Luckily, none of the splinters followed. The pain was too much and he screamed, scaring the birds above.  In their panic, they took flight. Leaving behind the dying echoes of their caws, and their feathers, as they glided slowly towards the ground.

Emorin continued to lie on the ground moments long after the birds had left and his pain had subsided. Beside him were the pieces of his broken slingshot, directly in his view. He knew in his subconscious that it wouldn’t work. Sure, the shape was perfect, but many other things about it weren’t. For one, after being soaked in the rain, bacterial decay had completely weakened the wood. Also the “leather strips” would never have flown the projectile that far.

He knew all this, yet in a fit of absurdity, he thought that all his hard work would be enough to overcome the laws of physics, endow him with great hunting skills and allow him to bring back to the village a grand prize.

Instead of heading immediately back, he wandered in the woods a little. Hoping that the overwhelming vegetation would take his mind of his failure. Hoping that the time spent would seal those wounds. In the forest, there were more plants in a square meter than he had ever seen in his life. More microbes in a square micrometer than people he had seen in his life. It was refreshing, therapeutic almost, being surrounded by so much green. All his life he had been surrounded by metal. Metal cabins, metal cutlery, metal weapons. The dull grey was almost driving him insane.

The sun was almost at the center point of the sky, and he had to be getting back. The psychedelics would be wearing off soon, and the Chief would be coming to his senses. It would be best that his favourite object of abuse was not so far from his reach.

 

……………………..

 

As Emorin approached the village, he could tell something was wrong. Fear gripped his heart, and his throat dried up. It was so dry it almost hurt. He couldn’t even bring himself to gulp. The place was way too quiet.

He willed himself not to run, but the emotions controlling his movements were too primal for something as luxurious as free will. He never thought the day would come that he would be eager to return to his cabin.

Most of the huts in the village were made from scrap metal obtained from the Fallen Mothership. Wood and metal, a grotesque juxtaposition. The village was so empty that his footsteps produced loud echoes. Sounds which changed in quality as they bounced and ricocheted about the metal walls. Almost unrecognizable as they returned to him. The Pandora’s box in his brain seemed particularly elated with the idea that the echoes were rudimentary wails. Screams of the haunted lady, right before she turned into a banshee. He ran faster, the sounds grew louder, he ran faster.

 

In his hut, he found his brother, and his fear subsided, momentarily.

“Where have you been?”

“I…..”

“Don’t answer that. Just stay here and watch them”

“Them?”

His brother threw him a look and he knew not to ask any more questions. He couldn’t even ask what was going on. In moments, his brother was gone and he was alone once more.

His brother told him to watch them. Them. Plural. Not Her. Indicating that in his absence, his sister-in-law had given birth. This was a huge deal. The first natural birth in over a hundred years. Under normal circumstances, the village elders would inspect the baby. Looking for any abnormailities, and sign that procreation in this nuclear infected cesspool was possible. Any sign that the human race had a third chance. But something big was going on. Something more important than this. Something more life threatening

Emorin knew the newborn and her mother were in the backroom. He heard no noise, so both must have been asleep. He decided not to disturb them. At least for now. He needed answers, and isolation was not kind to that need.

The funny thing about fear, it is always better when you know what you are afraid of. Fear which possesses no form, possesses every form. And that is when it’s most powerful. That’s when it transcends into a truly unspeakable horror. Given the fact that Emorin was alone, his brain had the time to run through every possible scenario. It was imagination unmitigated by external interaction. It was torture.

How much time had passed, he did not know. Maybe everyone was dead already. He thought so much about his end. And now, he was starting to think about his beginning. How everything, from his conception to his miserable adolescence was a series of bad decisions. How he was fated to die young and alone because of his teratogenic diseases. Electromagnetic radiation had not been kind to him in the womb, and being bathed in them, he had come out weak and sickly. Unfit to hunt, unfit to lead, unfit to mate. An aberration. An abnormality. A freak.

Unlike most teenagers, Emorin was hyperaware of his own mortality. Not like anyone ever let him forget it. It was in the names they called him. It was in the looks they gave him. It was in the food they fed him. He knew he was going to die. More so than everyone else. And he had made his peace with that. But if there was anything that filled him with angst it was that he was going to die a nobody. This was his mortal problem.

He tried to avoid this as much as he could. He tried to do anything and everything to be of relevance. He failed mostly, and he took solace in his daydreams. The only space where he was king of the world, worshipped by all. A pathetic choice, but it distracted him sufficiently from reality.

And now here he was. At the end of the line. They wouldn’t even ask for his help in defending not just his home, but the entire existence of his species. He wasn’t even worth the chance to fight for his own survival. Left here not for the newborn’s protection, but for his brother’s own piece of mind.

A cry pulled him out of his train of thought and into the present. A baby’s cry. The newborn was hungry and so it made that sound, tearing through the silence, over and over.

It annoyed him deeply. And it did not stop.

Over and over, again and again, the same high pitch, the same goddamn frequency. The same annoying cry. What had been a mild annoyance was building up into rage. The vein in his forehead was popping and his fists were shaking.

Even in the face of oblivion, this one thing was finding a way to ruin it for him.

He didn’t know who made the rules, but he hated them. All his life he had been ostracized just for being born. Just for existing. The Chief and the babble of baboons known as the Elders always found new ways to suppress him. They didn’t let him mingle with the other children. They didn’t teach him to hunt or to farm. They had hoped, that like a plant deprived of nourishment, he would wither and die.

Well, there was no one here now, and he could take matters into his own hands. He still had a chance to make his impact. There might be no one left to record his final deed , and it might just be another tree falling in the forest, but at least, the knowledge that he took control would comfort him till his final hour.

He unsheathed his knife and started to walk towards the inner chamber. It was a walk that would never end, towards a destination he would never return from.

 

 

The End.

 

 

 

 

Milk.

 

When your gaze first met his, you didn’t think much of it. Just another random meeting of the eyes. Best to disengage before any awkwardness ensues. But the lobby in the hospital was quite empty, the magazines on the desk weren’t your thing and you never understood the concept of soap operas. There really wasn’t much to do but look around. The final alternative being; staring at a fixed point and appearing like a person in deep thought. A woman in deep thought. A depressed woman in deep thought. Given the stage of your pregnancy, there would be no separating that image from the “single mother, damsel in distress” stereotype. And looking desperate was not on your agenda. So you looked around.

Your eyes locked a second time. A fraction of a second longer this time. You would have disengaged earlier, but you wanted to closely analyze the expression on his face. Curiosity.

At once, the stranger who shared a room with you transitioned from a mild annoyance to a thorn in your side. To discourage any further attention from him, you started to make small changes in body language. The muscles on your face worked to make a more distinct frown and you angled your body away from him.

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

 

Minutes later, you were almost at your car when you heard someone walking towards you. Before you turned around you already knew who it was. Given that the doctor didn’t really tell you what you wanted to hear, you weren’t in the mood to entertain anyone. Particularly not that creep.

There was something about him though, and you decided to lend him your attention just a bit. You focused more on his appearance than his words. If you were the stereotypical damsel in distress, he wasn’t exactly the knight in shining armor. More like not-so-faint-heart.

You wondered exactly what his motives were. Why would he be attracted to a woman at this stage of pregnancy?   You knew looks could be deceiving but you couldn’t help but conclude that he didn’t look the kind of guy who had anything sinister or malicious planned. He was a sweet talker, and he so desperately wanted to woo you, so you allowed yourself to be wooed. Perhaps you had ulterior motives of your own. Perhaps despite your adamancy in appearing as a strong independent woman at all times, subconsciously you wanted a savior. Responsibility really wasn’t looking as alluring as it was often romanticized.

 

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

A few days later, you heard the doorbell. You know you shouldn’t have been, but you were quite surprised when you saw that he had bought some daises and a bottle of wine.  The dinner table was already set. The fact that the aroma in the room didn’t repulse him was a good sign. You were actually quite invested in this now, so you put some effort into making a good meal. If the cow had milk to give, why shouldn’t you have your share?

You knew the small talk was inevitable, so you made your best impressions of a social creature. You were quite smug when you realized that being a less endowed natural actor wasn’t going to be much of a problem here. He was so much into you that he was ignoring all the little things. Your mirthless laughter, the blankness of your eyes, the flatness of your tone. Poor guy.

Eventually, the conversation started to go down more relevant pathways. Work, finances, personal life. You didn’t really know the dos and don’ts regarding personal information but you felt it was the perfect question to ask. Not too casual, but serious enough for you to seem like you were actually interested. You asked him how much time he had left to live. His answer alarmed you immediately: 12,056 years.

Moments after he stated this figure, your heart began to beat very very loudly. A thumping so intense you could feel it in your skull. How could he possibly have that long to live? Even your 120 years, among the vast majority of the population, was considered to be quite a lot of time. But this guy. Five figures?

The only people with numbers that high were serial killers. People who added to their own lifespan, what they stole from others. If this guy had five figures, he was either really old, or really prolific. And none of these options boded well.

You did not even delude yourself into thinking you could escape. All this while, you believed you were in control of the situation. But now you knew, like a fly in a web, there was no other fate but the cocoon.

You closed your eyes and tried to control your breathing. While doing this, he laughed. There was something about that laughter though. It wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t even emotionless. It was almost………..innocent.

Amidst all the emotional turmoil going on inside your head, confusion seeped in, and took center stage. Was he lying to me? Did I fall for such a cheap trick?

Your blood started to boil.

Seeing that you were far from being amused, he hastened his explanation.  He wasn’t lying, but there really wasn’t any reason to be terrified. Those figures were from a serial killer sure, but not him. And he didn’t steal that time on purpose. Turns out this guy had hit the apotheosis of all jackpots, literally. The one time he gets a little carless with his driving, he knocks down an injured killer fleeing from the police. And just like that, twenty victims worth of life, added to his own. How fucking lucky.

He starts to get all emotional. “I really wish you wouldn’t but I understand if you want to leave me because of this”.

Leave you? You almost burst out laughing. The pounding in your chest is still there, the throbbing in your skull is still there. But something has joined them now. Control, it feels good to have you back.

What follows is a performance worthy of the greatest stage in all the world. A stroke of genius seemingly ex nihilo. Perhaps your natural talent for acting wasn’t as diminished as you thought.

You let tell him not to fret. He might outlive you and all your great grandchildren. But, you will enjoy your time with him while it lasts. Like a grizzly bear, he guzzles your words like sweets from a honey comb.

After a hug and a kiss, he tells you he needs to leave. You smile and he wishes you goodnight.

What he believes to be the falling action, is, in reality, the climax. Your heart is pounding faster now. A beating so intense you start to wonder if he can hear it. Dead giveaway if he can. Beads of sweat start to form on your forehead. He turns around and starts to walk towards the door. Your fingers strengthen their grip on the kitchen knife on the table.  Now or never.

A perfect arc is drawn through space. One which spans air, flesh and air again. Your knees weaken but only one of you falls. You wonder if you have to cut him again, just to make sure, but the rapidly widening pool of blood takes away your doubt.

In hindsight, it was probably a good thing that the doctor refused to perform your abortion. You would have been settling for a shiny rock when an entire mine lay around the corner. This cow here had milk to give.

 

Mount Sharp’s Human

ENTRY 7:

The psychological analysis reports I have read all claim that astronauts, at this stage, are full of emotions like nervousness, anxiety, apprehension, disquiet and above all, fear. In science, all exceptions are given particular attention. And with my measured calmness I am nothing if not an exception. It is expected that I should be a maelstrom, but instead, all I am is a clear blue sky. I wonder if I should request another psych eval. Perhaps I’m not fit for this mission after all. But it’s also likely that this is just an astute attempt by my subconscious to get myself out of the mission. Am I really calm, or am I subliminally terrified?

A light beam slips through my window and bathes a portion of the chrome wall of my room in golden light. It’s dusk. Sunset. The final light before the long darkness, before the dawn, before newness and opportunity. Is there really an analogy in there? Or again, do I subconsciously have an ulterior motive? Are the parallels between the trajectory of photons and my mission unnecessary?

I miss my mother. I miss the scent of her shampoo. I miss Sunday afternoon pancakes. I miss Friday nights, bus rides to school, the boys, and the frustration.

 

ENTRY 9:

Sato wanted us to bury him on the planet. This would have been a very stupid decision, respect, tradition and custom be damned. You don’t get to introduce a foreign specimen into a controlled environment for sentimental reasons. Unless I can’t help it, all experimental protocol will be observed on this mission.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

A malfunction in the ventilation system brought to us a very stale smell. Along with the smell came the first sliver of a doubt as to if the incinerator would have been a good idea. We both felt nauseous but only Sato began to vomit. After the first round, he told me, “We should have buried him!”

I said, “Agreed. Waste of oxygen.” He gave me a look and then proceeded to vomit some more. Maybe burying him on the planet would have been a breach of protocol, but the asteroids in orbit would have been viable options. Too much of a hustle, I thought. I did not dwell on the burning remains. That leak in the ventilation system suggested to me that the condition of the ship was deteriorating further. The sooner we landed on the planet, the better. I left to check if the code for the landing sequence was still bug fee, leaving behind the smell of rotten flesh and the gagging sounds.

 

ENTRY 10:

The integrity checks I performed after coming out of cryosleep say various things. Things which can be summed up in flashing red lights. The ship is falling apart in every way possible. There are various reasons for this. For one, the urgent nature of the mission led to the hasty construction of Seven Sacred Streams. The safety checks were not as thorough as they should have been. Secondly, being in crystosasis for the duration of the mission made it impossible for us to conduct any maintenance. Due to power concerns, no robots were brought aboard the mission. Also, the large bouts of radiation the ship has been exposed to have catalyzed the decline of the ship.

Another disturbing issue, even with one crew member deceased…it doesn’t look like there’ll be enough resources to sustain the remaining two individuals for the planned duration of the mission…….

 

ENTRY 15

Before, we never really had any time to socialize, but being the only two humans for millions of miles forced us into interaction. Sato was a very nice human being. Back home, we would never have been friends, true, but talking to him is…refreshing. He has such a pure heart…that kind of unapologetic genuineness which is rare amongst human beings. He has a background in botany and geology. A third generation botanist actually. I have no one waiting for me back home, but he has a family. A wife, 3 kids and a cat.

Opening up to me won’t make me any less strict when it comes to standard operating procedure, but, nonetheless, I’m glad I got to know him this way.

 

ENTRY 21:

I had expected the constellations to be different on Mars, but they were precisely the same. Because of its ties to astrology, I had veered away from astronomy as a student, however, from the iota of knowledge I retained, I could tell that the constellations, though composed of the same stars, are taking slightly different trajectories across the canvas of the sky.

After rationing my meals, vitamins, oxygen and other miscellaneous resources, I have just 24 earth days to complete my mission. 23.36 Martian sols. I didn’t factor in resources needed for a return trip. After what happened, why should I survive? All I can do now is commit to finishing the mission. To make sure all required fields of information are transmitted back to earth.

The night deepens and I face the risk of thinking myself to sleep on the rusty Martian surface. As enticing as that seems, as aesthetic as the scene would be, it would still be very foolish. Despite the weaker gravitational pull of Mars, it’s still a challenge to rise to my feet in my space suit. I walk groggily back to Seven Sacred Streams, leaving behind Deimos as he tears through the night sky, and the constellations, as they watch.

 

ENTRY 1

This isn’t the world we deserve but it’s the one we made. I’m quite honored to have been selected for this mission. Part of me feels that the human race does not deserve another chance. But part of me also feels that we can do this. Maybe its compassion versus masochism again. I went to the space center today where I met the other two crew members. Sosuke Sato and Michael Lee Caddleworth. I’ve decided not to base any judgments on first impressions. On paper, they look good.

The final parts of the ship are being fired off into space for assembly. From the little that I saw, everything about it is geared towards ruthless efficiency. No space for aesthetics. Even an aerodynamic shape was too much of a luxury and had to be sacrificed. Which is why the ship is to be assembled in space. Hopefully, entry into the martian atmosphere won’t be too rough.

I saw Marley at the funeral today. She looked pale, pretty and pathetic. Life in the middle class does not seem to be treating her well. Maybe I should have spoken to her. Maybe I should have tried harder.

 

ENTRY 23:

I keep wondering how all gods are born. Of what I read from theology, gods were born to sustain the minds of primordial man and help their understanding of the universe. But that can’t be the only way. Of late, I’ve taken up the notion that gods are born of obsession.

What is a god after all? Is it not nothing but the object of our worship? And what is worship if not an obsession? I keep thinking about the mission. The mission, the mission, the mission. Seven Sacred Streams ran out of fuel 2 days ago. I can no longer rely on the mobile space ship as a refuge from the unforgiving Martian sand storms. I now have to depend on the surface rover for transportation. Rides on the rover are fun. It’s interesting how I keep coming up with new ways to keep myself distracted from the large doses of radiation I am exposed to due to the shattered lead shield of the rover’s engine.

What is god? The mission is god. Maybe I have a messiah complex. Maybe not. But the fact remains that the hopes of everyone back on earth lies on my shoulders. The hope of the entire human race lies on my shoulders.

Its now a race against time, and the deadline presents itself in various permutations. Will I complete the mission before I run out of resources? Will I die of radiation poisoning before I complete the mission? Will I run out of resources before I die of radiation poisoning?

6 sols more. I have already transmitted all the results of the research I have conducted back to earth. The findings are already painting a very interesting picture. Disturbing to the human in me, but interesting to the scientist in me. Now I race towards Mt.Sharp for a final confirmation of my findings. Maybe I’m being paranoid. I pray I’m being paranoid. Only time can tell.

Resources are dwindling, and with all the weight I’ve lost, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s worth the ATP to keep writing these entries.

 

ENTRY 17:

My hands are still shaking. Its very hard to write. I don’t want to justify what I’ve just done. It’s easy to fall back on it, but I don’t want to use the age old cliché of “for the greater good.” It was an idea I had tossed around in my mind….almost jokingly at first. But I surprise myself with how quickly I acted when the opportunity rose.

Maybe they’ll hate for it. Maybe I should be hated. But I acted for the right reasons.

Did I act for the right reasons though? Maybe I’m a terrible human being, maybe I’m criminally insane.

I don’t want to write about this anymore. I want to be alone. My hands are shaking.

 

ENTRY 27

Radiation poisoning does not treat the body kindly. Its been a day since my last meal and I know I wont be alive for much longer. I’m so weak, I feel it will soon be impossible to vomit properly. When that happens, I’ll just become another corpse on mars. A corpse that died by choking on its own bile.

I willed myself to be wrong, but even before I had descended into that wretched hell at the base of Mt.Sharp, I knew, with every fibre of my being, that I was right.

I have not the energy nor the time to repeat my exact finding in this entry. The detailed report is already en route to earth. After I clicked the transmit button, I found it fascinating, that an electric and magnetic field, vibrating at right angles to each other, could contain such…….such doom. For a moment, I considered not sending the report. The despair that the mission had failed would have been infinitely better than the despair that all hope is lost. I sent the transmission anyway because I knew better. Better to pass on the burden of releasing or withholding information to someone else.

I lie down now on the surface of mars. A scene not so different from that a few days ago. Days when hope was still our drug. Lone astronaut in the freezing desert.

I sense the shadow of death hovering over me, and at once, I begin to feel, with a deep regret, that I lived an empty life. I begin to feel sorry. Very sorry.

I’m sorry about my dad. I should have been there with him in his final days. How was I supposed to know how lonely it would be to die…with no one by your side. I feel sorry about my high school boyfriend. I shouldn’t have cheated on him the way I did. It’s silly to feel sorry about such a thing now, I know, but I can’t help my feelings. I feel sorry about Marley. Maybe my life would have been better if I had stayed at home with her. If I hadn’t left the town on a quest for education, money, power and glory. I feel sorry about Marley’s daughter…who’s going to die. A daughter who could have been mine. I start to cry.

I feel sorry about the earth. About every single living thing on that planet. About how everything is doomed for destruction due to chemical reactions, psychology, evolution, and the destructive march of time.

I feel sorry about the ship. It was a good ship. Seven Sacred Streams kept me warm and safe.

I feel sorry about Sato…whose body I left rotting somewhere beneath a Martian dune. He did not deserve to die that way. I had no right to be judge, jury and executioner.

I feel sorry about my cells. The multitude of cells which worked tirelessly to keep me alive. In spite of myself, I can’t help but feel I failed them too. This isn’t the world we made, but it’s the one we deserve.

We are all going to die, but I would have preferred not to die alone.

I’m sorry.

 

 

 

MISSION REPORT

FINAL TRANSMISSION

By Dr.Katherine Strange

ABSTRACT:

When I first signed up for this mission, I had no delusions about what was ahead of me. I knew the task ahead would be difficult, and I tried to the best of my ability, to prepare myself. In the psychological evaluation tests, we were asked what motivated us to accept this mission. For my crew members, it was simple: Duty. But for me, it was much more complicated.

I thought at the time that perhaps I was motivated by greatness, that I was the heroine who would forever be immortalized by her deeds, that I was a 22nd century Achilles. But now, I’ve had quite a lot of time to contemplate that answer, and I know it’s false. I was, in fact, motivated by compassion.

It may sound like a lie, for someone who’s spent a lot of time screwing people over in order to climb to the top. But when you’re stripped of a lot of things you thought were important, when you’re stripped down to your bare self, you have a lot of room to think clearly.

Perhaps, being in cryosleep has altered my brain chemistry in some way, and I may have retroactively altered my motivations. Nonetheless, I feel compassionate about all of mankind. And I have a burning desire to save us.

The caveat to having a burning desire though, disappointment cuts through to your very soul. I had invested so much of my emotional energy into the success of this mission. Every night, before going to bed, I imagined the tears of joy on the faces of my superiors when I send in the good news, all but touching their warm faces, all but feeling their relief.

Humans have always been ruined by their own expectations.

There must be some kind of philosophical term for this phenomenon though. It is a twist of such literary proportions that I am almost certain that it has been explored by some creative genius in his thousand page novel and discussed with passionate curiosity in many college classes years later.

To whoever receives this message, if you read it alone, I shed a tear for you, for the burden of this knowledge is not easy on the soul. You can read ahead, navigate through the scientific semantic and statistical reports, cut through the raw data and draw an inevitable conclusion.

Being human, you are going to be frightened by what you see. So frightened that you triple check the data. Your fear will not be made baseless however. You will become even more frightened then, and try to consider the possibility of forgery. Of Insanity. Heck, you’ll be so desperate that a genetic lack of creativity will not stop you from visualizing all possible ways this data could be false.

You can go ahead and read the reports. But that will be a waste of time. I’ll just tell you now what I found, in as few sentences as possible. I’ll be brief…a shadow hovers over me.

Millions of years ago, the first humans evolved on mars. Back then, the planet was verdant and beautiful, with lots of water and so much oxygen. Then, as the eons passed, the state of the planet began to deteriorate. The flora and fauna began to die off. Living conditions were growing increasingly unfavorable. The planet was heading toward a mass extinction level event. An event catalyzed by conflict, decadence and pollution.

Finally, the event happened, and in the span of a million years, the most complex of organisms disappeared from the surface of mars while the most simple of organic molecules spawned on a planet close by. A planet we call Earth, our home.

The origin of life has always been a mystery. One of the great questions whose answer was unknowable. Unknowable, up until now that is.

When the state of the Earth began to deteriorate, the country’s strongest nations came together to organize this mission. A mission to gather data on the planet mars and find out how quickly it could be terraformed into a new Earth. Well, the joke is on us. One big fat cosmic joke. And with the vast emptiness of space, no one will be left to laugh.

Of what I found on Mars, of the data I gathered, Mars will never ever support life. Not again. Eons ago, before the last humans died on mars, before it become this rusted wasteland, a project was commissioned in which an evolutionary engineering process was started on a nearby planet. When they realized they could not save their home, they at least tried to save their species.

Are you laughing yet? Are you bellowing in hysterical laughter? Imagine how foolish we seem now. Having destroyed our planet to the point where we have to buy bottled oxygen from stores, we seek a new home, only to realize that a previous version of our species destroyed that place a long time ago.

Despite the cruel irony, I think this proves conclusively that the fate of humanity is one of self-destruction. Maybe we should give up. After all, natural selection is a flawless mechanism. Human beings may be destined to burn bright and fade fast.

For all my opinion is worth, I do not think we should despair too much at this realization. The fact that we ended up this way after a second try only conclusively proves that there was literally nothing we could do to change our fate. This should take a lot of guilt off our chests.

If my mission achieved something at all, it has brought to light the knowledge that we are quite close to the end point of human civilization. In spite of this, we should love, and create and be. So that we can claim to have lived.

 

 

THE END