Science Fiction

At The End There Was a Man

By Lee Battersby
Aug 14, 2018 · 6,783 words · 25 minutes


     What little world there was, belonged to the sand. It spilled over every horizon, and the only life that survived lay silent during the searing day, waiting for the night hours, when lifecould emerge to scuttle through brief hours of safety.

     The beach upon which the man squatted had never been a place of note. No city had looked down upon it; nobody had surfed upon its waves or fished its waters; no boats had cut across the bay on the way to other, more important, destinations. It was simply a space like all spaces: sand; sky; and emptiness. He crouched at the beach’s edge and watched the water scud in and out in low, tired ebbs. Where it receded, tiny transparent creatures skittered and died in the sudden shock of air. Hunkered down, he resembled a particularly still hillock, or a rock yet to be ground down to nothingness by the wind and the water. He made no movement. There was nowhere to move to: where he had been lay behind him, and there was nothing else in front. He had reached an end, before he was ready. All he could do was wait for death to catch him up.. After that, he would feed the tiny crustaceans that owned the world. The man sat, and stared across the water, and waited.

      Time no longer mattered. This late in the life of the world, the sun kept its own time, setting or simply skimming the horizon as suited its mood. The man had no need to mark the days. Only the approach of death mattered, and that came closer by moments. The sun wobbled across the sky, nodded once, then plunged for the edge of the sea. The blackness that followed was sudden, and complete, broken only by a meagre scattering of stars, perhaps three dozen blinking eyes peeking down upon the planet. As the heat lessened, all around the man came to life. Holes opened. Heads emerged, then claws, and legs, tiny organisms scurrying from boltholes to sniff the air. The man ignored them. They, in turn, treated him as part of the landscape, crawling across his skin in ignorance of its true nature. The sun rose, and they disappeared. It retired, and they returned. The man’s eyes closed. His arms slipped from their perch upon the hard bone of his knees. He slumped and, empty of consciousness, crumpled to the ground.

     One by one, minuscule creatures came to investigate his fallen form. They milled about in the moist sand, transparent feelers brushing against his skin until their vibrations attracted the attention of a greater predator.

     The crab burst from its lair like an explosion, scattering smaller animals before it on a gout of sand. Its claws scythed left and right, harvesting prey and pushing them into its maw in a ceaseless frenzy. By the time it stopped, satiated, several seconds had passed, and it stood alone by the man’s side, triumphant, turning its hand-sized shell this way and that as it searched the nearby ground for more food. But the moment had passed. All who could reach safety had done so, and those who could not had been consumed. The crab took a slow step backwards, and another, preparing to wriggle back underneath the surface of the world, to wait for the next unwary meal.

     Intelligent thought had long since left the man. It was instinct alone, the inbuilt need to survive, that guided his movement. His wrist stiffened. His hand shot outwards from his body. Fingers wrapped around the crab’s shell and lifted it from the sand. The crab fought back, slicing at the surrounding flesh with its claws. Blood slid between shell and skin as they bit deep. The man did not wince, did not twitch in pain. He rolled onto his back, raised the crab above him. Eyes closed, he drew his other hand across and grabbed a claw. He twisted. The claw stuck, ground against the rim of the crab’s shell, and came free. The crab shuddered, and loosened its grip upon the man’s hand. As it died, he was already bringing the severed limb to his lips, sucking the flesh and ichor out of its shell, reaching again to twist, remove, and eat. The shell cracked open between sun-hardened fingers. Crab meat, sweet and laden with juice, slid between split lips. The empty shell dropped first to his chest, and then — as he curled into the foetal position — onto the sand.

     He stayed that way for as long as it took the tide to sneak up and spirit away the empty shell. Then, slowly at first, but with increasing frequency, he began to shudder. The movement jerked him to his knees. He arched his back, curled back on himself, arched again. His shoulders tensed. He shot his head forward, mouth agape, and vomited. Undigested crab meat splashed into the milling surf. He spasmed, and threw up until only bile emerged, then only the cramping movement remained and a last few, precious drops of liquid. Eventually, his weakened body gave way, and he fell forward into the edge of the water. He lay that way for several minutes, until the splashing tide caused him to cough and find his knees once more.

     Slowly, with infinite weariness, he focussed upon his surroundings. The final, meagre reflections of sunlight upon water showed him a beach: featureless and flat; bounded by the lazy dunes through which he had passed. He turned his gaze in both directions. To his left, it stretched out without impediment; an unbroken grey streak that gently curved away out of sight. To his right, almost at the edge of his vision, a lump of black provided the only thing upon which he might focus. He stared at it as the light began to fail. Then, with no thought in his mind, he found his feet and began to trudge towards it.

     By the time he got there the day had gone, and he only found the object by tripping over it. He knelt and examined it by touch: a tube, of sorts, made from some soft material that crinkled and crackled under his hands. It was open at one end, and his fingers found an even softer form poking out, a thin, grassy covering hanging loose over much of its surface. He twined some in his fingers and pulled. It resisted for a moment, then came loose. He sniffed it, tasted it experimentally, then spat it out. It was brittle upon his tongue, tasteless, the threadlike fibres causing him to gag in distaste. With no other means of identification available to him in the dark he shrugged, and lay down next to the object. Within moments he was asleep.

     The warmth of the sun woke him. He lay for long moments with his eyes closed, letting the sunlight draw the aching cold from his joints, letting it bring life to the starched tundra of his face. A light breeze spat sand into his eyes. He blinked, and opened them, then turned his head towards last night’s object.

     A face stared back at him.

     The man screamed, a short canine yelp that echoed across the empty landscape. He scrabbled backwards until he sat a dozen paces away, hands over his head, peeking at the corpse through protectively-raised knees. There was no telling how long the stranger had been dead. The sun had dried the skin until it lay like leather across the skull beneath. Countless sand creatures had removed those soft portions that made for the easiest meal: the scarred and blasted face lacked eyes, lips or nose, so that even if the man held any memory of others he could not have identified the features before him. What little hair remained was stiff with salt and heat, a sparse covering with a conspicuous space where he had pulled out his handful the night before. With that memory he began to rock and whimper, sucking upon a finger as if drawing upon his own juices might erase the memory of the hair upon his tongue. The corpse continued its dead stare, and soon enough, without any other action presenting itself, the man found his gaze wandering away from the featureless face, down along the rest of the half-buried body.

     Only the top half was visible. The legs had disappeared as wind rolled a small dune slowly over them. The body was covered with a single piece of clothing—thick grey material that hid any notion of gender from the eye. The man scuttled sideways, away from the empty face, around the arm splayed out from the body, to kneel in the gap between forearm and waist. From here he could look down at the corpse’s back, and see the burnt edges of a hole in the material between the shoulder blades. He frowned, and picked at the fabric with a finger, cooing like a confused infant. Something stirred, deep in the recesses of his mind, and he slapped at the corpse’s back in an effort to drive it away. He tilted his head to take in as much as he could without looking directly at the head. A splash of faded colour caught his attention, high on the arm, almost at the shoulder. He shifted position, brought his face down to peer at it. A circle of light blue, and what might have been letters, if the man could recognise any such thing and if the design was not so faded by long exposure. He poked at it, then without knowing why he did so, looked at his own shoulder, seeing only his own skin, burnt dark and tough. He rested his fingers there for a moment, then looked back at the discoloured roundel.

     Suddenly he was up and running along the beach, away from the corpse, away from the direction in which he had come. He keened, a long ululation torn directly from some forgotten grief, bringing forth tears that muddied the world around him. He tripped, fell to his knees, and rose once more, flight fuelled by an inexplicable terror. He knew only that he had to run, to scream, to get away as fast and as far as he could before whatever thoughts circled the corpse could descend upon him. He ran until his legs gave way and he fell at the edge of the high-water mark, knees digging scars into the wet ground, hands splayed outwards in unconscious imitation of the dead body now a hundred metres behind him. He lay like that for hours, as the sun seared his back, moaning softly. At last he wound down. His sobs became whimpers, then fell into heavy, agonised breaths. His fists clenched and released, kneading handfuls of sand. He drew his legs under him, stiffened his arms, and rose to a dog-like stance. Slowly, slowly, his breathing normalised. He raised his head, opened his eyes, and focussed once more upon the world around him.

     And saw the ship.

     It lay in the surf like an abandoned wreck: burst upon and broken-backed, exposed to the wind and the sand that piled about its edges and threatened to swallow it whole. A million ticks and groans filled the air around it as the sea breeze whispered through the hull’s gaps. Dangling panels kept counterpoint by slapping softly against the rusting body. Writing and insignia dotted the outer skin, scoured by the wind and rusted out by the ocean salt. Even if the man could speak the language, he could not have made out more than the occasional angle or subtle change in the stain spreading out across the ship’s body.

     High up the side, towards the pointed end of the body, a bubble of metal and glass looked out over the rolling waves, and perhaps a dozen feet behind it a gash rang along the skin to disappear into the sand. The man stared at it, slowly climbing to his feet and shuffling forward as if reluctantly returning to a long-evacuated home. Something in the air changed as he approached, some quality of light and heat blocked out by the sheer bulk of the ship, so that he curled arms around his chest and shivered. Even so, it was no more than fifteen minutes after catching sight of it that he stood at the base of the gash, and stretched out a trembling hand to brush fingers against the hull. The gap was wider than it had appeared at first sight: wide enough that three men could have walked through without touching the sides. Inside he could see a jumble of steel beams, gantries, boxes, and unrecognisable detritus, rolled and folded over each other in a catastrophic mess. Wires hung like gossamer so that he could see no more than a dozen feet, even though the light that filtered through the scene made it apparent that the breach ran all the way round the ship’s hull and down the other side. The man took a hesitant step onto the nearest flat surface, then another. A third, and he was wholly encased in the metal space. He looked about, and saw himself contained. Something broke within him, then, and he slowly sunk to his knees, then further, to lay insensate on the cold metal floor.

 

     He spent a week inside the vessel, exploring the countless rooms and corridors like an animal invading an abandoned burrow—sniffing the air and fingering the surroundings as if half-expecting to fight the previous owner for possession. He found food in a storage room near the rear of the vessel, ripping silver bags open with his teeth and cramming the dried contents down until he was ill. Dripping pipes provided water, salty and tannic, that he sucked until they ran dry and he was forced to move onwards in the search for more. Slowly, through staterooms where he stared blankly at lockers full of silver clothes and papers, past rooms full of arcane machines rusted into immobility, along corridors where lights fizzed and popped at his approach, he completed a circuit of the ruined ship, until the floors tilted upwards, and the journey became a long climb towards a single hatch at the end of a corridor, that hissed half-open before grinding to a halt. He gripped the edge of the door with one hand, hauled himself over, and finally entered the control room beneath the bubble.

     The first things he saw were the windows. A dozen feet high, arching overheard to form a giant sphere of glass with spiderweb-thin framework, they dominated the room, providing a backdrop of sky to the control panels that ran around their bottom. Five seats sat equidistant about the cabin’s circumference, each one little more than a metal framework supporting a nest of leather rags and mouldy stuffing. Cracks ran through the glass-- a surface tough enough to withstand collisions with high-speed particles shattered by the impact with the planet’s surface. In the middle of the room, set on a raised metal plinth, stood a taller, deeper chair, its seat turned with the angle of the deck. A single panel leaned drunkenly before it on a warped and bent frame. The man set his feet on the floor and half-stepped, half-slid, towards it. He grabbed its back, and peered around the edge of the chair, staring down at the thin line of sand and water that meandered at a crazy angle outside. Without being entirely aware of his actions he shimmied around until he stood in front of the chair, then climbed up and sat in it, eyes transfixed upon the sand.

     His weight settled into the fractured webbing. Something below his buttock clicked. Slowly, with a sub-audible grinding of gears, the chair rotated towards the panel. The man whimpered, and brought his legs defensively upwards to his chest. A bank of lights on the panel flickered and died. Something in the air hissed. The man recoiled deeper as a burst of static sounded, then slowly resolved into a voice that filled the air around him.

     ‘. . . come, Michael. Please place your hands on the . . . m of the chair. Repeat. Welcome . . . ael. Please pla . . . our hands on the arm of the chair. Rep . . . come, Michael . . .’

     The man panicked. He tried to haul himself out of the chair, his only instinct now to get out, to flee the room and the terrifying sounds and run across the sand as far and as fast as he could. He gripped the end of the arms. Something stung his right hand. He had just enough time to pull it free, and stare at the bright red drop of blood on his palm, before sleep reared up and turned the world black.

     He woke from a dream of soft whisperings and warm waves of comfort. Above him, stars glittered through the broken glass. He coughed, and reached up to wipe gunk from the corners of his eyes. A gentle, empty, voice, spoke.

     ‘Welcome back, Michael.’

     He looked about himself, blinking back the lethargy of long sleep.

     ‘Where am I?’ He flinched at the sound of his voice.

     ‘You are . . . eated at the bridge, Michael.’

     ‘Michael?’

     ‘That is . . . ame. You are . . . chael Muller.’

     ‘I don’t . . . my name?’

     ‘Michael Muller. Date of bi . . . of Ju . . . thirty four. Age twenty two years ni . . . en days. DNA profile mat . . . dred . . . ercent.’

     ‘I . . . I can talk. I . . . can . . . remember, almost . . .’ He frowned, trying to catch thoughts that dipped and flew away from him.

     ‘Deep learning. I have bee . . . eaking while you sleep. You have been asl . . . p for approximately thr . . . days, Terran.’

     ‘But . . .’ He stared about himself in sudden, unnameable panic. ‘I . . . I don’t . . .’

     ‘Things will . . . r as the drugs exit your syste . . . Please make your way to the Captain’s stater . . . m. Things will become . . . ear.’

     ‘The . . .’

     ‘Follow the lights, Mich . . .’ Above him, and to the side, a row of lights flickered into half-life, leading down the askew floor towards the door through which he had entered. Michaelslowly slipped out of the chair, and slid down the floor after them. He caught himself by the open door and peered down into the corridor. The lights continued another fifteen feet or so down the incline, before turning and stopping directly in front of the wall. Michael gauged the fall, inspecting each wall as best he could for handholds and protrusions. When he was satisfied that he could make it, he eased himself over the edge, and made his way down like a child descending a tree. After twenty minutes of tentative travel, he wedged himself between two buttresses, and viewed the wall into which the lights disappeared. Two faded lines of paint outlined a door. Michael had missed it on the climb upwards. There was no handle, no control pad, nothing beyond the two lines to suggest possible entry.

     ‘What now?’ he asked the corridor. The computer’s voice crackled back at him from a nearby speaker.

     ‘Place your hand in the . . . ntre, chest high.’

     ‘Right.’ He shifted, careful not to lose his balance, until he stood at roughly the same angle as the doorway. He braced himself, and slowly reached out to touch the surface of the door.

     ‘Nothing’s happening.’

     ‘Contact upon door . . . face is two hundred . . . limetres too high.’

     Michael looked down. The buttresses placed him a foot above the floor. He nodded, and lowered his hand. There was an almost-silent click, and the door before him slid open, silently and smoothly. Michael stared at the room beyond.

     It was a stateroom, but a stateroom transformed into something that might well have served as a jungle gym. The original floor was still visible, inclined at the same angle as the rest of the ship’s upper half, but nothing matched it. Bumps and protrusions jutted from every visible surface, a pimpling of foot and handholds that spoke of a concerted effort over many months to make the space habitable. At Michael’s entrance, lights flickered into life, including several hanging on lines above his head.

     ‘Oh, my God.’ Everywhere he looked, repairs and adjustments met his gaze. A hammock hung to his left, the mattress and blankets from the useless bed beyond nestled within. Across from him, welded in place below the crazily-angled window, a bench from the galley cut across the angle of floor and wall to form a work-table, scattered with papers, wires and unidentifiable gewgaws that Michael suddenly itched to explore. A bar stool swung out from one leg, thick seams of weld visible where someone had attached it. Boiler suits in a variety of colours hung from a horizontal bar near the hammock, and beyond that, a door-less hatchway promised a glimpse of the bathroom beyond. Michael suddenly felt every inch of dirt and grime on his skin; the weariness that dragged at his joints; the thick, twisted matting of his hair and beard. He stared around him, a savage confronted with the first signs of civilisation, and tears drew lines through the grey dust of his face. ‘What . . . what is this place?’

     The computer answered him, voice clear and strong through speakers cleaned and repaired and waiting.

     ‘This is your cabin, Michael,’ it said. ‘Welcome home.’

 

     It took him a week to ask the first serious question. He spent the intervening time exploring the space, learning to navigate the paths of handholds and blocks that made up the floor. Slowly he adjusted, until clambering monkey-like amongst the protrusions was as natural as walking, and he could swing his way from hammock to bathroom to corridor and back as easily as think. A bookshelf set high in the corner contained a dozen thick manuals, arrayed neatly by subject and date, that detailed the working of the ship and the necessary repairs needed to maintain the climate control, lights, and communications systems. Some were incomplete, with gaps where pages had been torn in some other, madder day. He scoured the wreck’s innards for pencils and paper, spent long hours slowly stumbling through the thick books, making notes and filling in the missing knowledge with his best attempts at logic and guesswork. Slowly, inch by mental inch, he began to understand, so that when a speaker fizzed and popped into silence he was able to remove it from its hole in the wall, trace the wiring back to a ruined transformer, and source a replacement from a darkened galley lower down.

     Even so, parts of the ship showed evidence of human occupation before him, and he found himself using those places with little sense of comfort. The door to the bathroom had been removed. Someone had beaten an abandoned locker into the shape of a bath. It filled the tiny space, and he had to stand in it to use the hand basin. Amazingly, the taps still worked, and he was able to attach the hose he found in the metal vanity and fill the makeshift tub with hot water, sobbing with pleasure as he lay with eyes closed and let the water soak into his knotted muscles. A spigot on the side emptied the water into a hole in the floor: he listened to it surge down hidden pipes to hit a metal surface some way below his perch. An even greater wonder was the shaving kit next to the hose: he spent an hour shaving, meticulously cleaning the scissors and razor then replacing them in their leather holder and wiping the top of the tube of cream when he had finished, before carefully placing them back where he had found them.  So much work had been done, and he was aware that he was the architect of none of it. After a week he still felt like an intruder, and every new discovery was of someone else’s possessions, a loan of someone else’s life. He wiped his hand across the fogged mirror, and stared at his white, clean-shaven stranger’s face.

     ‘Computer?’

     ‘Yes, Michael?’

     ‘This is my cabin.’

     ‘Yes, Michael.’

     He stared into the mirror, eyes sliding from his own face to the jury-rigged environment behind him. He took in the bedding, the books on their shelves, and the piles of accumulated items that spoke of months of determined collection.

     ‘Everything in here belongs to me.’

     ‘Yes, Michael.’

     He considered his question for long seconds.

     ‘Who put it all together, computer?’

     There was a short pause, so that he almost fancied the computer was considering its reply. Then:‘You did, Michael.’

     He nodded, then, and closed his eyes, not wishing to see his reaction to the computer’s next response.

     ‘When?’ he asked the blackness. ‘When did I do this?’

     ‘You began after the last remaining survivor died,’ the computer said. ‘Eleven years, four months, thirteen days ago.’

     Everything had a name attached to it, a previous owner from whom he had scavenged the homeliness of his bolt hole. Michael set out in search of them: the ghosts he imagined haunting the corridors, the dead and silent passengers of the ship. He found nothing. The computer knew. Of that much he was certain. Their names were in a database, their biographies recorded, their actions and voices hiding away deep inside its electronic memory. He spurned them. He needed to hold them in his hands, to feel their existence as a living, tangible thing. He found only echoes. The ship had long ago been cleaned out. Anything that might have given him some clue as to the lives of the missing crew members was already in his possession. Time after time he returned to his room to turn some tiny piece of falderal over and over in his hands, as if constant contact might bring him knowledge through osmosis: a lighter he had found in the stateroom’s tiny kitchenette; the leg from a pair of glasses; his razor. He could not bring himself to ask the computer, did not want to hear their lives dispassionately recounted by that empty, artificial voice. In the end he set his mind against it, and turned to other matters.

     ‘Computer,’ he said one night, lying in his hammock with hands behind his head. ‘Where are we?’

     ‘In the stateroom, Michael.’

     ‘No.’ He sat up, swung his legs over the edge, and stared out of the window into the dark. ‘The ship. Where is it?’

     ‘Location unidentified.’

     ‘What does that mean?’

     ‘I cannot answer that question.’

     Michael sighed. He had become used to that answer in the months he had spent in the ship. The computer could only recount what was recorded within its systems. It could not offer opinions, or deal in anything other than absolutes. Bit by bit Michael had become more precise in his questioning. Still, frustrations remained.

     ‘Is this island inhabited?’

     ‘No intelligent life forms have been recorded.’

     ‘How extensive are your records?’

     ‘Pre-impact recordings show no intelligent life forms recorded.’

     Michael frowned in thought.

     ‘Where is the nearest life form?’

     ‘I cannot answer that question.’

     ‘Where . . . um, what is the location of the last recorded interaction with a life form? Outside of this ship,’ he added quickly. The computer hummed for a moment.

     ‘Last recorded interaction with a life form recorded at co-ordinates axial 37.5, ecliptic 18.27, one hundred and nineteen thousand AU from galactic point zero.’

     Michael stared at the speaker. ‘What does that mean?’

     ‘I cannot answer that question?’

     ‘How far away is it?’

     ‘I cannot answer that question.’

     ‘Well . . . then . . . what are our co-ordinates?’

     ‘I cannot answer that question.’

     Michael broke his gaze from the speaker, and caught sight of the stars outside his window. He stared at them for hours, whilst the night deepened and the only sound came from the ticking monologue of the cooling hull.

 

     He left his room the next morning, and spent days travelling through the bowels of the ship. Without light to guide his days he slept whenever he was tired, in whatever corner of the corridors he found himself, eating only when hunger overcame him. Once he was back, he spent a day hunched over his table, refusing to speak or even acknowledge the presence of the computer, making a series of pencil marks on a plan of the ship that he shielded with his arm as if preventing a classmate from copying his work. The computer remained silent. When he had finished he stuck the diagram to one wall and left it there for another week, absorbing it as he worked around it, waiting for a subconscious clue to warn him of something he may have overlooked, any mistake he may have made. When nothing presented itself, he spent an afternoon making a list on a piece of paper with the pencil stub. Finally, after nearly ten days of silence, he spoke.

     ‘Computer?’

     ‘Yes, Michael?’ The answer was swift, the voice steady, as if the computer had been waiting for the opportunity to talk.

     ‘I want to feed a list into your databases and check them against your stores records. Where can I do that?’

     ‘The engineer’s position in the control cabin has a working terminal. You can access it--—’

     ‘Yes, I know.’

     The computer fell silent. Michael swung over to the door, and entered the corridor. He was at the control cabin within a minute. He had grown quicker in his wanderings, and now moved around the inner workings of the ship with practiced ease. He had not visited the cabin since his arrival. Now that he did, he could see how the engineer’s terminal was cleaner than the others, how it was in better condition: the seat patched and repaired; the workstation empty of the worst excesses of dust and neglect; the keyboard and monitor neither chipped nor missing any elements. Michael paused, his fingers over the keyboard.

     ‘How many times have I used this keyboard?’ he asked aloud.

     ‘Seventeen, Michael.’ The computer’s voice came from within the monitor: whisper quiet, with perfect clarity. The larger, broken speakers that dotted the walls remained silent. Michael frowned.

     ‘I . . . have I been through all this before?’

     ‘I cannot answer that question.’

     Michael sighed. He laid his list down next to him and began typing. When he was finished he hit the ‘enter’ key and leaned back, eyes closed.

     ‘Locate these items and advise.’

     A second later the monitor emitted a small noise. Michael opened his eyes, and saw his list displayed, a location next to each item.

     ‘All together.’

     ‘Yes, Michael.’

     Michael nodded. ‘Provide a map, please.’

     A schematic of the ship appeared on the monitor. Michael gazed at it for several seconds.

     ‘Two back, one up,’ he muttered. ‘Top of the dorsal hump. Right where . . .’ he broke off the thought. ‘Right. Thank you, computer.’ He rose from the chair, and swung back to the corridor. The path through the maze of passageways was well lit, and he had no problem finding his way up to the relevant room. He paused inside the entrance, and laid his hand over the light switch. The lights flickered on automatically, and he sank to his haunches at the sight before him.

     A long workbench dominated the room, which was empty of any other furniture. Atop it stood a conglomeration of wiring and computer parts that would have made no sense to an untrained eye. But Michael had been living with the design for over a week. It was a transmitter, powerful enough to breach the atmosphere of a planet and send a subspace signal deep into the surrounding regions of space. A thin patina of dust overlaid its surface, like everything else in the ship, but there was no mistaking the signs of upkeep. The lights in the ceiling held a steady glow, highlighting the machine with merciless clarity. Michael slumped backwards, and sat against the wall.

     ‘How long?’ he asked the air. ‘How long has this been here?’

     ‘The machine was constructed thirty four days after impact,’ the computer’s voice came clearly.

     ‘Thirty four days . . .’ Michael raised his head, stared at the speaker. ‘Has it . . . has it been used?’

     ‘The machine has been used a total of eleven times.’

     ‘Eleven . . . me? By me?’

     There was an almost imperceptible pause, as the computer searched its memory banks. ‘You have used the machine ten times.’

     ‘Ten times.’ Michael stared at the machine, hands gripping the fabric of his trousers so that his knuckles whitened. ‘Who else?’

     ‘Captain Andreas Muller.’

     ‘When?’ Michael clawed his way to a standing position. ‘When, damn it?’

     ‘Eleven years, four months, thirteen days ago,’ the computer responded immediately. ‘Thirty five days after impact.’

     ‘So long.’ He stared at the speaker until his eyes began to water, then blinked, and inhaled deeply. ‘Was there . . .’ he coughed, and tried again, his voice less shaky. ‘Responses?’ he asked. ‘Have there ever been any responses?’

     ‘One response received.’

     ‘When?’ He found himself leaning over the speaker, shouting into its impassive grill. ‘When?’

     ‘Eleven years, four months, thirteen days ago.’

     The wall was cool. He leaned his forehead against it, and closed his eyes. After the longest time, he trusted himself to whisper, ‘Was it recorded?’

     ‘Yes, Michael.’

     ‘Play it.’

     ‘Yes, Michael.’

     A moment’s silence, and then a new voice filled the room—strong, deep, with an accent that Michael found both slightly odd and comforting at the same time.

     ‘Mayday. Mayday. This is the pilgrim ship Sarcalogos Immortalis requesting immediate rescue. Mayday. Can anyone hear me?’

     ‘Who is that?’ Michael asked.

     ‘That is Captain Andreas Muller.’

     The voice repeated his call a dozen times, each enunciation measured, precise, lacking any note of panic or desperation, any emotion at all. And then, finally, a reply: faint, distorted by millions of miles and unknowable atmospheric effects, but a reply nonetheless. And the voice named Muller talked: detailing his ship’s crash on an unknown planet; the destruction of the vessel’s engines and lifting surfaces; the injured; the dead. There was a pause, and Michael waited with held breath while Muller and the unknown voice lapsed into silence. Then the voice returned, and Michael found himself muttering ‘no, no, no’ over and over again as it spoke.

     ‘Request denied,’ it said. Too far from established ecliptic lanes. Too expensive to mount any sort of mission. Little chance of success. And, finally, ‘You made your choice, Captain.’ Even through the distortion, Michael could hear the contempt in his voice.

     ‘What does he mean?’ he asked the empty room. ‘Computer, what does he mean?’

     ‘I cannot answer that question.’

     ‘But what choice? What choice is he talking about?’

     ‘I cannot answer that question.’

     ‘God damn it—’ But Muller was speaking again, and the forlornness in his voice stopped Michael cold.

     ‘Please,’ the long-dead Captain said. ‘My son. He’s only eleven . . .’

     There was no answer. The air hung silent and empty.

     ‘Recording ends.’

     Michael sagged, and slid back down the wall to a sitting position.

     'What happened to them?’

     ‘I cannot answer that question.’

     ‘Well, what can you answer?’ He kicked out at the bench, buried his head in his hands. ‘Manifests, logs, something, please!’ He closed his eyes, took long moments to settle his breathing. ‘Check all logs and computer accesses, computer. Read them to me. Go backwards from the most recent.’

     Ten empty seconds passed.

     ‘Interior access panel operated, storage locker three, eleven years, four months, thirteen days ago. Exterior access panel operated, storage locker three, eleven years, four months, thirteen days ago —’

     ‘What was in storage locker three?’

     ‘Storage locker three. Firearms.’

     ‘Right.’

     Michael closed his eyes. A memory flashed across his inner sight—a body in the sand, the cloth between its shoulder blades black and ragged from some unknown cause. He tilted his head back, and banged it against the wall until the image broke up and disappeared. Slowly, as if lifting an enormous weight up the wall, Michael raised himself to a standing position. He stared at the transmitter for several minutes, then turned abruptly and left the room. When he returned ten minutes later, he was carrying an iron bar.

 

     Michael stood in the ship’s hold and looked through the broken hull at the dunes that spread out to the horizon. Behind him, the bath from his stateroom sat on the tiny hill of sand that had invaded the space. It had taken days of effort to remove it from the stateroom and drag it down to the exit. Now it crouched next to him, bottom smoothed out and welded to a pair of skis made from the railings that had supported his hammock. Inside, food packages and canteens of water lay piled up to the bath’s upper edge, tamped down by the hammock and two thick, polyurethane blankets. Michael leaned on a button set into the hull’s interior wall.

     ‘Computer?’

     A burst of static issued from a nearby speaker. ‘. . . s, Mich . . .’

     ‘How many times have I done this?’

     ‘I . . . not answer . . . t ques . . .’

     Michael nodded, and released the button. He bent down and picked up two ropes he had fashioned from all the safety webbing he could scrounge. He shouldered them, and pulled the makeshift sled down the little dune and away from the bulk of the ship. When he was sure he was far enough away, he left it, and returned one final time to the hold.

     For three days he had collected every scrap of flammable material he could find, and piled them up in drifts that spilled out through the open door of the hold and twenty feet up the corridor, packed tight into every access panel along the way, every speaker he could reach, every conduit and hole that might carry flames higher up the structure. Michael stepped up to the paper mountain, and reached into his pocket, removing the lighter he had carried with him for so many weeks. Without a word he flicked it on, and held it to the edge of the nearest book until flames licked up around his fingers. Then he straightened, and threw the lighter into the middle of the pile.

     He was already on the sand, and taking up his ropes, before the flames reached the corridor. By the time he hauled the sled a dozen feet, smoke was billowing from the massive hole in the hull, and the sound of the fire was already the loudest thing in the world. Michael walked up the beach without a backwards glance, away from the burning ship and the bodies under the sand.

     The column of smoke stayed in the air for days.

ENDS

This story originally appeared in Anywhere But Earth.