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Afterwards
By Jim Warner and Anita Moore Roland

 
The Ending

It was dark in the cave. What little light I could see was at the front, and the clouds were so thick that very little sun came through. But at least the windstorm with it’s biting sand and hurtling rocks had died down. The quiet outside was not yet reflected in my head. I could still hear the rushing, howling booming noise. As a matter of fact, the utter silence had a noise of it’s own. I thought, “Or is it all the rushing of my blood and beating of my hearts?”

It seemed as if the tidal waves had subsided, perhaps for good. It was by the grace of god that I had escaped the holocaust by finding a natural cave, but to what end? My supplies were gone. Transportation and communications were useless, probably no one to call, anyway. The meteor had taken care of that. All I had left was a pocket communicator. Why did I carry that around? It just felt like something comforting to hang onto, useless or not.

I was getting so very hungry and thirsty. For days now I hadn’t been able to leave the cave, and there was no food or water here. I thought “Maybe it's time to explore a little, see if there is something out there that has survived that I can eat. Maybe some spring has survived the heat." I had to go look, even though I was so weak I could hardly stand to walk. I slowly crept toward the dull light.

The forest was gone. Looking out of the mouth of my cave, my desolation was complete. Where the lush foliage used to stretch out before me like a soft, cool carpet, there was nothing but a few sticks and hot, bare rock. Even the topsoil had been stripped away; it was all in the sky now. Above me still there was no sun. But the light managed to come through the brown broiling soupy sky and illuminate the earth enough so I could see. I thought “I have to leave the cave and somehow find food and water, or I will die like everyone else.”

The ground was hot. How could it be when there was so little sunlight? Probably from the hot stormy winds which had now settled down to a melting breeze. I was starting to hallucinate, every shadow a pool of fresh water, every twisted naked tree trunk a shelter to find food. I thought, “I have to go on, hopeless or not. Someone else might be out there.”

I searched the bluff for another cave that might have a spring. My cave was completely barren. If I could find water, I could survive a day or so more. Maybe there would be some kind of sprouts if there were water. Who knew - maybe there would be something still alive that I could eat, if there was water? There! Up there a short climb! There was a small trickle of water and what looked like a cave! “I will live,” I rejoiced, in spite of the fact that I could hardly drag myself up the cliff.

I clambered up as best I could; it took forever. The dim light was almost gone, but I managed to scrape up the last few handholds to the mouth of the new cave. There, trickling from the black void, was a tiny stream of water. I laid down in it as I drug my aching body over the edge onto the flat cave mouth. My tongue gingerly snaked out to touch the cool, wet stream. I thought, “There must be a spring inside somewhere…” as consciousness left me.

I woke up and it was dark, but I could tell it was nearly dawn. The wind died down during the night, but was starting up again, still hot though not more than a gentle breeze. I pulled myself together and straightened up from the ground. The stone of the cave mouth was still warm from yesterday’s heat, and would become hotter still when the windstorm arrived. I staggered as quietly as I could, still aching, into the mouth of the cave.

Inside, my eyes used to the semi-darkness from days in my own cave, I could see a few details. There were sticks and bits of material not destroyed by the hurricane winds. There were also a few small animal bones scattered around with bits of flesh still hanging from them, smelling of decay. Someone had lived here, and recently from the smell of it. I was almost hungry enough to suck the last meat from the bones, rotten or not, but not today - Not today.

I stooped at a small depression in the rock where the stream had formed a tiny pool and scooped up water to wash the dust off my face. Then I drank, not caring that the drops slipped through my fingers and splashed in the dry dust on the rocky cave floor. Everything was brown from the dirty sky. Even the water looked brown, although from the taste I could tell it was fresh.

Deeper into the cave I found a water skin, like someone would carry who was exploring these caves in earlier, friendlier times. It was empty and dry. When I took it to the small pool and filled it, it didn’t leak, so it had only been here a few days or a week at worst. I thought, “There must be someone here. How hungry are they? I have had dreams of cannibalism this week. Have they? How desperate are they?”

My imagination kicked in, “What if it’s a girl? What if it’s an old hag? I have to go find her. She might need my help, even if I have no food. Maybe she has food. Maybe she’ll share. Maybe she’ll kill me for food. I have to go look, anyway. Maybe it's a guy.” I thought, “Maybe I’m getting delirious. I feel dizzy.”

I walked down the main tunnel until I saw, or more accurately felt, an opening to my left. I couldn’t see very well, what little light there was from the covered sun didn’t reach very deeply into the cave. But I could make out the shape of a tall opening, tall enough for me to go in. So I went in.

My eyes took a moment to register that there was a small crack in the rock, letting a bit of light into this natural room. Finally, although the light was mostly a brownish color, blending in with the walls, I could see someone lying down near the far-left corner, if you could call it a corner, of the space. I was very frightened now, but I gently stepped over to the person. He or she didn’t wake up as I moved. I was encouraged and moved closer. Finally, I was right over the other person and they were still asleep. I kneeled down as quietly as I could to get a better look. I thought “The clothing is nondescript, but definitely female - wonder what she looks like”

I finally got up the nerve to touch the person. I was so quiet, maybe she hadn’t heard me, or was as afraid as I was, and was just pretending to be asleep. I thought “Perhaps she’ll stab me with a knife as I bend over her.” But, thankfully, she didn’t. Then I got a horrible feeling. I thought, “Maybe she’s not asleep. Maybe she’s dead. Please be asleep. Please!”

Throwing caution out the door, I bent over close to her head, and listened for her breathing. There was none. Bold now, I pushed her over to better see her face. Even in the darkness I could tell she was dead. She had been very beautiful in life. She was young, younger than I, and not long dead - she must have succumbed to the lack of food in just the last few hours, as she was still warm to the touch. What a pity it was! If only I had known, we could have died together. Or maybe not, because I was still alive. “Or then,” I thought, “maybe I’m also dead, and this is my death dream, a fantasy fitting noble hearts.” I was getting more delirious. I had to find something to eat, soon.

I felt around the ground for something, anything that might be a clue as to why she was here, and I felt something soft - a blanket or jacket, all folded up. She was lying on it. I gently felt the jacket for something; I didn’t know what, anything at all to satisfy my curiosity about this tragic death. And I felt it: something round and warm - as warm as me. It seemed she was lying on a rock. Or rocks, I corrected, as I felt several more of them. Curious shaped, suspiciously shaped, all the same. I had to see what they looked like, so I picked one up, and slowly, aching, standing up, I carefully moved out of the crypt.

With a feeling of unexamined excitement, I hurried toward the light of the cave entrance. My eyes were better adjusted now, and I could see fairly well in spite of the dirty sky. As I got to the front, I looked at the object in my hand. There was no mistaking it. The milky white, slightly rough texture was obviously an egg. I thought “This woman laid her eggs in the last few days here, and I am a father now, like it or not.”

I was now really torn. I had no food and no hope that anyone would bring me any. I had to find something to eat before I died. And I was probably the last person alive on the entire world. And I couldn’t bear the idea of eating such a beautiful woman. I thought, “We’re not cannibals!” But would I rather die? No, not really. Not now, with children to raise. What a dilemma!

The sun, such as it was, was starting to set behind the dirty clouds. I turned to go back into the cave and something fell from the ledge above me. Instinctively I slashed out at it with my claw. A lucky hit, the creature dropped dead at my feet. It was a mammal — how bizarre. I decided that I was hungry enough to eat even a mammal, rather than my beautiful dead companion. I picked up the disgusting creature by it’s long prehensile tail and dragged it into the cave.

It wasn’t hard to gather up some sticks and fabric for a fire to cook the ugly thing. And I could fill up my flask whenever I needed to. But how to start the fire was another question. I had no tools except my useless pocket communicator, and had never been trained in wilderness survival.

Then I thought, “My dead girlfriend might have something.” I went back to her room, and remembered that the eggs were uncovered. I gently replaced the one I had taken, and rolled her body back onto them to keep them protected. Then I ransacked what was left of her clothing, but there was nothing there. I started groping around the room on the floor and found it in the corner: her pouch, with all her worldly possessions, such as they were for this now dead world. And yes, she had a smoke-stick lighter.

It worked. I lit a piece of clothing I had torn off her body and found my way back to the now dark cave entrance. I placed it on the sticks before the fire died and they started burning immediately, probably because of the intense dryness. I stuck the mammal on a large stick and held it over the fire, cooking it until it stopped dripping.

I remembered that in some parts of the world roasted mammals were eaten with relish. Personally, I preferred fried insects and vegetables. But to each his own. I thought, “Cooked mammal is definitely better than cooking one of my own kind.”

The smell didn’t leave the cave, and it was almost overwhelming, but I found my stomach growling with anticipation anyway, so I decided biology knew better than intellect what to do. I pulled the meat off the bones, shredding it with a claw as best I could and chewed it and chewed it and chewed it. Finally, I was able to get it down to manageable size to swallow, and my stomach was satisfied, even if I wasn’t. I kept telling myself, “this is a delicacy in some cultures.”

I took a stick that was burning on one end and went to the crypt. I thought, “I have a decision to make. Am I seriously going to try to raise these children without food, or water, or a home, or civilization, or anything? Or is it better to let them die? I don’t know. I’m not a philosopher, and am not qualified to make this kind of decision.”

I decided to do what I could, which was dispose of the woman. I picked her up, surprised that she was so small and light. “How could someone so small have laid six eggs?” I thought. “She must come from a prolific family. She would have made a great mate, even if she did use smoke sticks.”

I took her fragile form out to the edge of the front of the cave. It wasn’t easy, juggling the still flaming stick and her small body. I put them both down and offered up a little prayer to the god that had decided to wipe out our world. It wasn’t an angry prayer. In fact, for some reason I decided to offer up a hopeful prayer, probably because I didn’t want to have to repopulate a barren world. I made it a prayer for rescue: that someone escaped the holocaust and would come and save my newly found children from what would probably be certain death. Then I kicked her lifeless body over the edge down the cliff.

I decided to sit on the eggs. After all, they were my own species. Maybe they were the only hope for our species. At any rate, it was something to do. And I didn’t know how long ago she laid them. She may have been sitting here for quite a while. Or maybe she laid them yesterday. I didn’t know. I wasn’t very knowledgeable about such things. Thankfully, I dozed off before my stomach could put up a complaint about the food that I had put in it.

It woke in the morning. I could tell because the small crack was letting in it's miniscule, dull rays of light. Also I could faintly hear the wind outside through the crypt’s doorway. I thought, “I should stop calling it a crypt. It’s a nursery now.” I decided to move the eggs closer to the front of the cave. It was just as warm there as anywhere else. And, I could better see what was going on outside, just in case someone actually came to rescue us. The food and a purpose to survive for the children seemed to have changed my viewpoint. I realized that I had become hopeful. Yes. It was so strange. Maybe even stranger than the environment had become. My viewpoint had changed from near hopelessness to almost hope. That was a big step. I moved the first egg.

I noticed that where the water had been running, there was some kind of green slime growing. This was grotesque and worrisome, and so I went to the edge and looked down where there was the tiniest waterfall from the small stream. Down at the bottom where I had been walking, where the dead woman was, I saw what seemed to be green fur growing out of the ground around the small pool of water.

The only green things I had ever seen were people, not this strange slime that turns into a furry blanket. It was frightening. I thought, “Everything seems to be frightening. I guess that’s how it is when the world has ended, and you’re stuck alive watching it in its death throes.” I wondered to myself as I straightened up, where this stuff came from and if this green blanket would end up being edible for the insects and mammals. I doubted that I could ever bring myself to eat something the color of my people. It seemed too much like cannibalism.

I thought, "Where could this unearthly stuff have come from all of a sudden?" I guessed it must have come from spores on the meteor that had destroyed the world as I had known it.

I began to walk back inside when a light brighter than the setting sun reflected off the back wall of the cave. I snapped around, expecting to see a break in the clouds, but instead there was a star ship. Then my 'useless' pocket communicator started buzzing. I sang out, “I am saved! Someone has escaped after all! My new family will continue on, on some other more hospitable world. Oh thank all the gods who have ever existed. The mammals can have this forsaken, destroyed planet.”

It took a while for the ship to spot me in the haze and dust of the atmosphere. I used the time well, moving my new family out to the edge of the cave. I didn’t see the ship land, they came down somewhere above me on the rocks. But soon several uniformed figures clambered down the hill to my hideout, their brightly polished boots and claws gleaming, even in the hazy sunshine. The tallest one said, “General, it’s good that we found you. We must get back to the ship quickly, another fire-storm is coming.”

"You smell terrible," I commented. Their pheromones reeked in the hot dry air. "Thank you for persisting till you found me”, smell and all. I thought, “The ship must be short of water. We'll have to find some, somewhere. This spring is pretty puny."

I had assumed no one had survived. It was both reassuring and depressing that of all the billions of people on our world, that the only survivors were the Navy, because they hadn't been on it when the asteroid struck. I mused, “In the middle of global catastrophe, the civility of the military is somehow comforting.”

Maybe some day my children's, children's, children's children will come back to this world and see what the few surviving species have made of it. Maybe the mammals will take over and find some tiny niche to cling to. I hope so. This once lovely, flourishing, hospitable planet with its red palms, blue rivers and lakes, grand purple forests, all teeming with life and edible species, is no more. I can imagine it will be billions of years before it is thriving again. And we'll be long gone.

The Beginning

-- Jim Warner and Anita Moore Roland



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