By Clay Waters
“Good morning, crew. I appreciate everyone reporting on such short notice this morning. As you can see we are short-staffed but ready to launch.” Science Officer Demmaline’s voice echoed in the vast bunker as we stood near her father’s commemoration alcove, six minutes before our trip to the year 2100. “As we take a colossal step 50 years into the future, I can’t help thinking of how proud my father, Mr. Tyler Pinkston, PhD, STRM, NPH, etc., etc., would have been of every one of you. As casino mogul and casual polymath, he stretched the limits of what it meant to be human. So many ideas. Some new and brilliant, some more old-fashioned.”
“I’m starting to miss the guy myself,” Arthur snarked, tapping his sword on the floor. Riverside giggled.
Demma offered a stiff smile and continued. “It’s only a shame that he died, almost a year ago to the day, before seeing this launch.” Demma was talking even faster than usual. Nerves and emotion, no doubt. “If you would all turn to the columbarium, behind T.R. there, you will see a tribute in marble to my father, Tyler Pinkston.”
It was certainly elaborate: A marble plaque 10-feet high, with a few commemorative lines chiseled at the top. Below it, wedged into the wall, was a bust of Pinkston (sharp nose, bushy eyebrows, sardonic grin). Below sat a narrow plinth, supporting a precariously poised urn. “T.R., if you can move a bit so everyone can see — watch out!”
T.R. obeyed Demma, puppy-dog style, his reckless left arm hurling out and toppling the urn, which hit the concrete and echoed. It was modern, so at least it didn’t shatter into a million mortifying pieces. T.R. had the decency to go red. “Sorry.”
Automatically I picked it up (lighter than I would have imagined, but it was my first urn) and replaced it.
“Where are the white coats this morning?” Arthur, still stirring the shit.
“It’s their morning off.”
“Got it all out of your system now, Arthur?” Demma exhaled. “All right. Let’s go.”
We filed forward, vaguely childish in our new all-gray digs that weren’t quite uniforms and not quite leisure wear. Still, the change made the mission feel real to me for the first time in 16 days. Now Launch Day had arrived, earlier than expected. We stopped at the mouth of the tunnel, where the real calyx sat, on the bunker’s east side.
The bunker was a 50-yard square, built below Pinkston’s flagship casino, The Phoenix. Pinkston had begun the construction as a mere billionaire, and when the tunneling attracted attention, he cagily “confessed” to be digging for silver.
Everyone had a good laugh at the genius mogul turned eccentric digging for a second-rate metal, not knowing that scientific breakthroughs in space, time, and garish architecture were happening under their feet.
Along the near wall was plastered a laboratory we had never entered, where the people in lab coats congregated. Scientists? Engineers? Techs? Only Demma talked to them, between leading us in our simple training in a mock-up of the calyx — Demma’s fancy word for our ship – which stood in the center of the vast space. Seen from a particular angle, it functioned as a dull mirror.
In the northwest corner stood Pinkston’s “dream house,” because if you were going to be an eccentric you had to have a dream house. It was a green-shingled, orange-shuttered nightmare with bay windows and a turret, the inside left blessedly unseen.
There really was a silver mine, 40 miles away in the Mojave, connected to the bunker by a purpose-built titanium-lined tunnel. The mine apparently held some unique natural gravity field, made it an ideal time-gate (whatever), tweaked and monitored by Demma’s silent knot of white coats.
Demma’s explanation of the hypotheticals of timelines and multiverses had made my head hurt. She explained the small, secret successes of Pinkston Corp. — moving photons back and forth through time, then tiny inanimate objects. Interesting, but not in the end compelling. This would be different – though still secret. Demma had tried to explain in lay fashion the breakthrough that had led to the possibility of the time transport. The only thing I recalled was a grim joke (or was it?) about timelines and universe-ending paradoxes — “If you see yourself coming, run.”
“It’s all math, it can’t be done with words,” Arthur sneered, when I asked an ignorant follow-up.
When Arthur wasn’t around, we conjured up other possibilities. A black hole that would suck up the planet whole. A gateway that opens the way for an alien invasion. Demma would like that, actually.
The elaborately edged and folded calyx shell required a specialized track to propel our crew of eight through time. Captain/Medic Burgess. First Officer Cassandra. Science Officer Demmaline — the one with the vital mission knowledge. Navigator Riverside. Chief Tech Arthur. Chief Diplomat/Shrink T.R. Security officer Brett (the muscle).
Down to me, Jackson, second tech. If a pod failed to open, it was my job to crack it open. If my pod failed…well, that contingency had hopefully been accounted for. Where would that leave me? I didn’t think about it. Not with $5 million on the line. It would get me through the next 10 years, provided I stayed away from video poker.
The mission sounded simple, borderline silly: Ride the calyx down the tunnel, smack through the time-gate and emerge 50 years later, to be met by a Phoenix crew awaiting our arrival. After a brief, highly controlled tour of the future Las Vegas, and a relaunch back to 2050, armed with harmless ephemera from 2100.
Yeah.Too simple. Pinkston hadn’t become a trillionaire by ignoring angles.
Demma was giving Arthur side-eye. “Are you really taking that sword?”
“It’s a ceremonial gift.”
“It’s an embarrassment,” I said. “Your father was a pacifist, right, Demma?”
“More of a sexist.” She rolled her eyes and turned away.
“Tough luck, white knight,” Arthur whisper-sneered my way, as we elbowed into the ship.
The real calyx was a shinier version of our practice model, just as minimalist, save the hub in the center, where Demma took up position. We sorted ourselves around the outer ring, in front of the pods inscribed with our names. Nine in all, one for each of us, plus another marked SUPPLIES. A tracery of orange fire made a ring in the floor, an imperfect seal separating us from the mysterious engine.
“A minute measurement error,” Demma took control of the cramped motherboard hub, briskly fixing and adjusting.
Arthur waited for the others to file in to their pods, holding his sword awkwardly in the cramped space. “Hey Demma, I’ll flip my coin,” Arthur piped up. “Heads I bring the sword, Tails it stays.”
“Whatever, just get in,” Demma hissed, her concentration on the motherboard.
Arthur set his lucky coin on his thumb. I keyed my pod shut in front of me. My arms tingled. I blanked my mind against thoughts of Arthur or wrecked timelines. I would know soon enough (or in 50 years) which way the toss had gone.
One moment I’d shut the pod and the next (so it seemed) it had jolted to a stop. My pod burst open and I stumbled out into a dark space and saw the un-cushioned reality: As if the ship had imploded and then split apart — the walls crumpled inward, the motherboard charred. The pods had been scattered; they gleamed in faint light. They looked intact. As my eyes adjusted (there was light above) I realized we had stopped in a mine shaft. That had gone right, at least.
The world was so quiet I cleared my throat to make sure the experience had not made me deaf.
I counted heads as the others came stumbling out of their pods: Arthur. T.R. Cressida. Riverside, Brett. Then me. Six of eight.
Captain Burgess and Demmaline unaccounted for.
Two pods remained closed. Everyone looked at me.
I approached Burgess, keyed in the code, then stood back as the pod opened outward; the others crowded me to see, lumens steady.
There was a gray pile of ash at the bottom, nothing more. I blinked; the scene was so alien it took time to process. “Captain Burgess, deceased,” I finally announced, hoarsely. Burgess. Brisk, officious. Laconic to a fault. We had all admired him, even Arthur.
I moved to the pod with Demmaline’s name. I punched in the code, fingers trembling. The pod irised open to reveal a smaller, darker pile of ash.
“Science Officer Demmaline, deceased,” I stated, amazed at my own calm.
Cressida put her hand on my shoulder. “Demma must have died first, Captain Burgess later. Whatever later means. I’m sorry, Jackson. I know you liked her.”
I nodded, shut the pod. Retched.
Demma had said nothing about fatal pod failure. Had the arrival in the rock slide caused it? Yet the rest of us were fine.
I looked up at the circle of sky. What was waiting for us? Jetpacks? Neural probes? Aliens? The blocked tunnel meant we had no choice but to find out. If we were ever returning to 2050, it wouldn’t be in our calyx. We would have to hope our future Phoenix hosts had a spare. Though I had the odd feeling there would be no hosts.
“We better crack that supply pod,” Cressida said. “Jackson, are you qualified?”
“It’s — it was Demma’s domain,” I muttered. “I can try.”
After three fruitless attempts and three increasingly loud Arthur sneers, she put me out of m my misery. “Skip it, let’s head upstairs.” Thankfully the slope was worn and mild. We gained the desert surface, peered around. All quiet, same as in 2050. Either Las Vegas’s eastward expansion had not yet reached that far, or….
It felt ominous.
“We’ll head for The Phoenix, figure out what went wrong.” Cressida was loud on the windless plain.
Without supplies, our clothes were all we had, plus our lumens and Arthur’s damned sword. Not even phones, though I doubted we’d get a signal. We’d been strictly warned off picture taking in 2100. Butterfly effects. We had carried cyanide pills that very morning (however long ago) but Demma had confiscated the pills and phones before launch.
At least we know where we’re headed. Riverside pointed us toward The Las Vegas Strip, 40 miles northwest, not yet visible on the horizon.
The surface had broken down, so our shoes sank ankle deep in the dirt. I’d developed an arm itch that looked angry red. Maybe gamma rays, or something else I didn’t understand. The sky was green but the air was breathable. The sun seemed the same size. So maybe we weren’t a billion years out. Still, it seemed the world had stopped waiting.
A grayish hump stood small on the horizon: Hoover Dam.
“Maybe it’s localized,” Cressida said. “Everyone huddled in Australia.”
“It feels unplugged,” I said, and the others nodded, save Arthur, maybe out of hostility. Fine. Demma and I had bonded over dislike of Arthur.
Demma. Diplomatic, friendly, a little glib. Stone cold smart. Thin and freckled and gawky, eyes set wide apart. Unyielding on the mission, and her insistence there were other sentient beings in the universe. I would take up the other side just to watch her cheeks flare red and throw her oversized freckles into relief. Once she’d gotten really heated and said she knew about a Pinkston Corp. deepspace project, but quickly clammed up, and not even Arthur’s drunken badgering (“Why aren’t you on it, then?”) could get her to open up. I had surmised she and her father had shared a close if slightly exasperated relationship. Doubtless she’d resented her wastrel brother being named CEO of Pinkston Corp. and not her.
We floated other ideas: Meteor. Civil War. Armageddon (Riverside, naturally). We raised more pressing issues: Food and water. We had seen no plants, not even scrub cacti. Nothing but the rusty red rock rust of the Mojave.
We followed the sun and the ditch of glittering salt that had been the Colorado River. Sunlight slotted through forbidding towers of bright emerald cloud, the refraction making things even brighter. I vomited, then vomited again. “I don’t feel good,” I said, blinking in the sickening glare.
“None of us do.” Cressida stopped and with strange grace hurled into the dirt. “I wonder why,” she said, wiping her mouth. But I think we all suspected.
We trudged on toward the setting sun. It was getting dark, which would bring freezing temperatures. Our thin clothes and crepe-soled shoes were not made for hiking.
Just after sundown, thirsty, hungry, and sick, freezing with sweat inside our dank clothes, we stood at what was left of Hoover Dam.
At Cressida’s command, we halted. The dam had not eroded to the level of the surrounding rock, so it resembled a jagged slope of discolored glacier. The elevated highway across the top looked passable, if treacherous. In the moonlight the gray slopes were silvered. The moon was smaller than I remembered, with a reddish tinge.
Except…it wasn’t the moon: The moon was over there, waning gibbous. And the other…thing? was gone.
So what had I seen? An asteroid? A hallucination?
“The stars are coming out. They can tell us how long we’ve been out, if the clouds cooperate,” Riverside said. “You guys go on down.”
We found a gap in the concrete and felt our way in, our lumens barely penetrating the pitch black. Warmer inside, anyway. Broken bits served as crude stepping stones, and we found a corroded stairwell and picked our way to the concrete embankment below. Panting with exertion, we emerged on the viewing platform and waved our lumens over the rotted plain of powerplants and turbines, our footfalls echoing in the huge space.
Riverside found her way down. She had read the stars. We had overshot 2100, she said. That we knew.
“How far?” Cressida asked.
Riverside cleared her throat. “100,000 years, give or take.”
Lander whistled. T.R. kicked up dust. Arthur cursed.
An answer that left a myriad questions. Everyone we knew was long dead. How? When?
And was it our fault?
“Arthur?” Cressida said, “I think you have something to say.”
Arthur took a spot at the center of our edgy knot. “More bad news, which you may suspect already. By my analysis, each of us have the symptoms of severe radiation poisoning.” He licked his chapped lips. I did the same, stopped when I realized I was mimicking him. “At this rate, it will soon begin affecting our internal organs.” Arthur had dropped his bullshit.
“How long do we have?” Riverside sounded stoic.
Arthur shrugged. “I can’t say precisely. 48 hours?”
“Riverside, is that long enough to get to the bunker?”
She shook her head. “Hard to say. Maybe?”
“What are we going to do?” T.R. asked.
“What can we do?” Cressida peered over the rusted rail. “Tell sad stories of the deaths of kings?”
Riverside sat herself cross-legged on the floor. The rest of us did the same, piling our lumens together in the center. Arthur stood his sword upright against a pillar, saying, “The batteries will last longer than we will,” and joined the campfire.
Doomed, we sat and talked about normal things. About how we had come to be on the mission. Riverside had gotten divorced and found God, who had sent her to Las Vegas to minister to the heathen (she didn’t say heathen). But God didn’t provide cash from the sky, so she had answered the same ad the rest of us had. Cressida had been convicted of medical device fraud, whatever that entailed. “You’ll never get hired now,” Arthur cracked, and I had to laugh.
As for me, I had moved to work as a slot tech and found I liked video poker too much. T.R. didn’t get tenure. Arthur was tired of working around idiots. Only Brett stayed quiet, letting us imagine the worst.
We pondered the truncated training. The surprise call up. Demma’s tribute. The lack of white coats. What had gone wrong?
We talked about what we would miss. Stupid haircuts. Pixar movies. The Super Bowl.I would have put a big wager on the London Monarchs in Super Bowl LXXXV, with a side-bet on a final score of 72-63. (Who’d won, anyway?) We stayed off the subjects of food or drink. The space started feeling almost cozy.
Eventually I drifted into some semblance of sleep.
The murder penetrated my brain as a strangling sound. I staggered to my feet to see Riverside screaming, waving her light over a mass on the floor.
The bloodied body of T.R. lay crooked, eyes wide, scraggly beard failing to conceal his open-mouthed astonishment. He’d been bludgeoned through the chest by Arthur’s sword, still sticking out of his blood-soaked shirt.
Brett slid the sword out, coming away with a dark red stain on his gray uniform. With big, surprisingly delicate hands, Brett set the sword back in place against the rusted rail that separated us from the drop-off.
We all stared at Arthur.
“What? Anyone could have taken it. Any of you.” Did he glare at me a shade long? Unfortunately, he was right; he had propped the weapon against a bulkhead, in full view. “Could have been a suicide.” He actually sounded exasperated.
“Not suicide,” Brett said stoically. “Can’t get that kind of thrust.”
Arthur seemed ready to snipe back, then thought better of it.
“Why’d you even bring the damn thing!” On impulse, I kicked it over the rusted rail; it clattered to the level below. “Evidence,” Cressida whispered half-heartedly. Oh well. Not like we had a fingerprint scanner around.
We didn’t have the energy but still carted T.R.’s bony body up the slope and out, like short-handed pallbearers. “T.R. was from Nevada, wasn’t he?” I asked.
Riverside nodded vigorously, touching her cross. Arthur rolled his eyes. Cressida shrugged. “It’s on the way.” So we crossed over the top to what had been (or still was?) the Nevada side and scooped up loose dirt and shoveled it on top. Riverside mumbled a theologically specific prayer and we stood there for a while, catching our breath.
“I suppose I should play detective,” Cressida said, “interrogate everyone, but what would the point be? There’s no jail here and no judge. And no murder weapon.” She looked darkly at me. “I thought T.R. was annoying but can’t understand why anyone would kill him. There’s no time for grudges. We’re all going to die soon enough. And since we’re not going to get any sleep anyway, I say we keep moving while we still can.”
We walked for what felt like hours, the sun rising ahead of us, Riverside and I leading, followed by Cressida and Arthur, Brett behind us. I could feel him staring bullets (or swords) into my back. My top suspect. I resisted the urge to keep looking back, while maintaining a healthy pace. I didn’t think Riverside had done it, and apparently she didn’t think I had. Which was nice. Still, one of us five was a lying murderer.
Well, one of us four. Pretty sure I hadn’t done it, though I had seen an extra moon.
“What the hell is that?” Riverside winced at my profanity but nodded.
We got very close before we realized it wasn’t a wall but a sharp-edged sort of forest, laid out straight as an English garden. Thick leathery leaves like elephant ears, blue and violet, hanging on thick stalks, pulpy like flowers. “We have to plow through, unless our navigator has some insight?”
“No,” Riverside said. “But I’ll take the lead.” We plunged in and were immediately lost in the fetid density, like a swamp of old socks, the tall grass-type plants crunching as we walked. Riverside called out every few minutes to keep us on rough track. With every step my hands and face burned with new scratches, stinging on my red, radiation-seared skin. “Probably planted to soak up radiation,” Arthur said.
“Guess it didn’t work,” Cressida replied.
“We could use that sword about now.” Arthur hollered in irritation from somewhere. “Got rid of it really quick didn’t you?”
“What are you implying, Arthur?” I replied pompously into the foliage.
“Stop being silly, guys,” Cressida said, and since she was semi-official captain and it was silly, I did. Couldn’t spare the energy anyway.
“Guys. Hey guys!” Brett speaking was significant by itself. “Water over here.”
“Keep talking, Brett, so we can find you,” Cressida replied.
He repeated himself until we all stood panting over a green smelly pool, really a puddle spilt over a patch of forest not buried in the gnarled, knee-deep foliage.
Cressida knelt over the dank little pond and cupped her hands. She swished, swallowed, shrugged. We followed suit, cupping the brackish green water into our mouths. Filmy, rotten, wonderful. A shame we had nothing to carry it off with. Who would have thought we’d need canteens?
“Almost feel normal again.” T.R. grinned like a goon. So did I.
At some random spot Cressida halted us for the night and we split up to sleep. We found crevices between the strange, spongy trees, or whatever they were. The suffocating surroundings perversely provided a measure of perceived safety — even with the lumens, the bush was so dense we could barely see three feet in front of us. The only way to be detected would be if you snored…like Brett. Taciturn during waking hours, the man was a volcano in sleep. I could hear him, clear and distinct, wherever he was. Soothing, like a dog snoring beside you in bed.
Something disturbed me, maybe the rustle of a shrub. Demmaline had come to lay beside me on the forest floor.
It was the dead of night, but she had brought her own glow. She looked alert and well, which should have made me question things.
“What’s troubling your soul, Jackson?” she asked in an impossibly sweet voice.
“Who killed T.R.?”
“I can’t answer that. I don’t even know what happened to our mission.”
“But you’re on the other side now. You have the wide view.”
“I’ve always had a crush on you, you know.”
“I know.” She raised herself on one elbow. “I’ve got to get going. Close your eyes.”
Then I heard Brett, muffled through the thick cottony surroundings, not snoring but speaking. I answered back. Something about dinosaurs, maybe.
I woke to a thrashing sound, like an elephant crashing through the forest, either right beside me or 50 yards away. I followed the noise into the thorny thickets, judging direction by ear. “Brett!” It was like running inside a nightmare.
“Brett!” The forest was quiet as death. No buzzing mosquitoes or chirping crickets. Arthur shouted “Jackson, that you?”
“Yes. I think Brett’s in trouble. Brett! You there?”
When I stumbled upon him at last, his upright stance briefly fooled me into thinking he was alive. Then my lumen revealed his face — eyes rolled up, tongue lolling out, a thick vine triple-wound around his throat. “Over here!” I shouted, until the others wrestled through the bush to find me.
“How’d you know, Jackson?” Arthur said.
“I was dreaming…and then it was real.”
And that was it. We didn’t shout or cry. What could be said, that would do any good? We just looked at each other, faces on neutral. One hiding an incredible secret. Incredibly well.
My prime suspect in T.R.’s murder was dead. Which meant one of my three remaining colleagues was not just someone holding some vengeful grudge against T.R. but a mass murderer. Disquieting.
Cressida unwound the vine, letting Brett slump against a spongy, oversized sunflower. Riverside and I began pulling big leaves; we gathered enough to cover Brett’s massive frame. Arthur and Cressida laid him flat.
We walked on single file, relying on the rustling in front to keep on the path. It got weirder as the dark got deeper, my lumen making the shadows more sinister. I saw a dog with bloody fangs, a seven legged spider.
Nothing’s alive on this planet but us four and some weird plants, I told myself. Any indication otherwise is just the radiation hitting your brain. Neither thought provided comfort, given the presence of the metaphorical snake among the crew.
“Will this forest ever end, Riverside?” Cressida called, rhetorically.
If Riverside was the killer — a one in four chance, mathematically — would she not just lead us deep inside and then quietly slink out, abandoning us to her God’s vengeance? Or did He require more direct action?
“We’re clear!” Riverside shouted. Of course Riverside wouldn’t let us down.
“Hallelujah!” Cressida, seconds later.
“About time,” Arthur, puffing with exertion. “Hurry up slow poke.”
Finally I broke through — facing the same rocky promontories, the Strip standing against a violet skyline, somewhat closer, though it was hard to tell.
For a moment we stood, the four surviving members of The Phoenix mission, blinking defensively in each other’s harsh lights. We weren’t a pretty site.
Then as one we turned toward The Strip, keeping our distances.
We walked all day, toward the one dot on the horizon before The Strip. The building’s past purpose was clear: The familiar footprint where the gasoline tanks had stood, an oasis in the cracked tableland. Dumb geographical luck must have shielded it from the elements.
“Be careful, all,” Arthur said hoarsely. “Every time we stop someone dies.”
We nosed around the hollowed concrete structure. There wasn’t much. But Riverside found a metal box, or the rusted outline of one. “Maybe it was a time capsule.” It contained a faint metallic blue outline that may have once been a phone. Also a locked diary, the clasp rusted away, the bindings a rectangular container of dust. Paper was surprisingly durable, but it didn’t last forever. What did?
Curiosity drew me to the door behind the corroded counter.
“Watch your step,” Cressida said.
The rusted door crumbled with a kick. Down the green-tinted steel steps was a hangar-sized space, empty but for three silver spheres, maybe eight feet round. The litter of surrounding iron suggested they had once stood on stanchions. Some weird plan to soak up the radiation, I presumed, failing along with the strange garden. I didn’t linger.
“Anything down there?” Arthur.
“Jug of water?” Riverside.
“Spare calyx?” Cressida.
Cressida stared out the empty window-gap. The Strip casinos were little stumps in front of the setting sun.
“We should leave something,” I said.
“Isn’t that what suicides do?” Arthur said.
“Leave your lucky coin, Arthur.” He glared at Cressida, who winked. Flirting? Really?
Riverside placed her cross necklace in the rusty shell. “It’s in God’s hands now.”
I sensed but did not look to see Arthur’s eye roll.
We pressed on as darkness fell. My world had shrunk to sweat and sunburn. I left my ruined shoes upon a rock; my blistered feet sunk like molten lead in the soft burning sand.
I returned in my head to Hoover Dam, to T.R.’s dead body, the concrete around him splashed with fresh blood, the rest of us peering over him in our silly gray uniforms. One of us only feigning shock.
What had we talked about that night? Nothing of significance. Just the silly reminiscing of people realizing they were on their way out. What was I missing?
Riverside, getting Biblical given the apocalyptic prospects?
Cressida, cool and calculating?
Arthur, the all-star misanthrope?
Demma…No, Demma was dead, though I had spoken with her.
Anyway, every choice was impossible. The idea that one of us had stabbed T.R., then strangled a big guy like Brett, didn’t compute.
No. No nine-flanged spiky demon or 30-foot grasshopper could serve as a scapegoat. Stabbing and strangling were all-too-human.
What a waste.
We had all shed our shoes by now. Last in the ragged line, I could follow the three sets of blood-flecked tracks with my lumen. Eventually we were treading through previously inhabited areas, sinkholes that marked ancient dwellings. I had once lived somewhere around there.
Then at last, the remains of the Strip stood before us.
Las Vegas: A basin surrounded by mountains, made fit for humans through feverish terraforming by the criminal element, crumbled back toward its natural state. At night it was a necropolis.
We could make out the sunken path of old Las Vegas Boulevard. Staggering in the valley of the casinos, their themes of ruined castles and tombs now had the calcified look of actual history. Trillions of stories told and untold, an interlocking infinity of gleeful moments buried under our feet, unrecorded and lost, with no one left to remember them.
A few more hundred-thousand years and there’d be no trace at all. “I was here,” I whispered. I would put that on the marble. If the chisels hadn’t all rotted away. Just a couple more things to figure out before then. The last mystery, as it were. Then I could join the rest of humankind, blissful in the ignorant dust.
We trudged past Premier, home of the big dollar sign; Ducats, its pile of golden lucre vanished. Luxor’s glass pyramid caved in. I imagined it as an actual burial place, stacked with the bodies of the billions. I shivered among the looming tombstones of the casinos.
Somehow I was leading now, walking in a stupor of my own thick dream-sand. I recognized each dead casino. Which meant whatever had happened had happened soon after our launch.
I slowed down for Arthur, who was panting and wheezing. We walked together, leaning against each other. Too late for suspicion. I had been worn smooth by the trek and the radiation, whittled down to a single obsession: The bunker and the answers it held.
“Bird’s gone,” Arthur said, nudging me. The trademark winged creature that had topped the Phoenix had flown, and the casino itself looked in worse repair than the others, red rivers of glass broken or warped out of their frames.
We limped inside, ducking through a long gash that had once been a row of windows. The casino’s front entrance was buried in sand. How deep? Hopefully just a few floors. Everything depended on a clear stairwell. If we had to burrow down to the casino floor we were doomed — out of time and strength.
The iron security doors had long rotted away, but blessedly, the inner staircase was clear. Twelve flights down and we hit the casino floor.
I switched my lumen on, revealing the vast, desolated casino hall, the light glinting off rusted rods and sheets of warped glass. “Careful,” I called behind me, keeping Arthur upright as we wound through twisted metal that looked like it had been burned and fused together, like an art installation.
I tried to sniff out molecules of yeast or bud, came up with nothing but an electric smell from the aged dust. I saw myself rolling at the craps table, two days, 100,000 years ago. Actually it would have been video poker in a corner. What a timid little man I’d been. No one’s bet to outlast the rest of humanity. Oh well. Heroes, world-changers, fuck-ups…we were all even now.
Past the metal stirrups and sawdust, we hit the center of the expanse, the platform where the holograms had danced. During a drunken escapade Brett had gotten in a fight with one and I had been too intimidated to laugh. I laughed now, loud and long. The echo reverberated off the walls and died. I told Arthur, and he laughed too, a noise that dissolved into hoarse coughing.
We found the opening to the stairwell (no door) and waited for Cressida, finally Riverside, who trailed behind in a fugue state. “One last look, boys and girls,” Cressida announced, still going strong. “Once we go down we’re not coming back up. And please, no one get any ideas. I for one am not in the mood to be strangled right now. We’ve gone too far.” Her voice was clear and confident but I could see her legs trembling.
We descended the stairs into the subbasement. I held Arthur’s hand. My feet were trembling too, from sickness or exhaustion or excitement I could not say. Could the white coats have found a way to keep the bunker functioning through deep time? Would answers be waiting for us at the flick of a switch?
No. The yawning space was as dark and dead as everything else. The air was shallow and breathing was hard. The flooring and walls had broken up into crevices we could barely step over. Dark streaks striped the walls, like the aftermath of a long-ago firefight. Plate tectonics, presumably.
“There’s nothing left,” Riverside said despairingly, as if she’d lost her faith.
Arthur stumbled over a crack and sat kneeling on his haunches, weeping into the dust.
“Come on, jerk, get up.” I hauled him to his feet.
“Oh my God.” Cressida halted, as if before a shrine. “It’s still here.”
The surrounding turf had withered away, the glass gone, but the dream house still stood, the gaudy colors reduced to ashen gray. Suddenly I wanted to see inside, sink my blistered feet in the shag carpet, swim in the kidney-bean pool…
We stepped inside the empty shell, Cressida heading toward the back and turning the corner, like it was her own pad. “Oh Arthur…” A come-hither that came out sounding perverse in the circumstances.
“Yes?” he rasped, as if for the first time in his life unsure of himself.
“Come on back to the pool.” Cressida’s voice was a parody of seduction. “There’s no water anymore, but it’s still nice.”
I patted his back. “Go get her, tiger.” Arthur tried to wink, but his eye just fluttered spastically; obediently he hunched his way to the back, toward Cressida. I followed discreetly, peeking around the corner.
The concrete around the bone-dry pool had cracked in several places but its former function was still clear. Cressida squatted against the wall as Arthur made his stumbling, eager approach. She glared in my light beam as if I was interrupting.
I ducked out.
Maybe she had the right idea. There were no answers down here. How could there be? A fool’s errand all along. Time to lay by a pool for one last screw.
And why was I jealous? Because I was the second-to-last man on Earth and no one wanted me?
The acting captain had cracked and picked sides. Which meant I might need to get friendly with Riverside, convert real quick.
For the last time, I missed Demma.
I exited the house, heading toward the model calyx (could it fly? of course it couldn’t) when I heard a thump from behind. I returned, trained my light back into the pool area, to see Cressida raising a stone tile and bringing it down again and again, cracking Arthur’s stubborn head into squelchy chunks. She worked wordlessly, her face flecked with Arthur’s blood.
“Riverside!” I exited the house and rasped into the echoing bunker, moving toward the model calyx in my tripping, failing body. “Riverside, it’s Cressida! Riverside?”
Riverside lay sprawled out, blood pooling out of her caved-in skull. A piece of bloodied marble lay beside her. I puked out a stringy piece of something pink, a bit of stomach, or liver.
I knelt to drape her long curls over her ruined face. “Tell God hello.”
But it was still impossible. Cressida was still behind me. How could she have done this?
“Good work, Jackson.”
“I didn’t kill her.” I turned around. Arthur’s blood was spotted over Cressida’s front, mingled with the filth from 40 miles of desert. She had discarded the tile.
She grinned. “Well it was dark. Must have been someone else. Looks like one of us made a bad call. But what’s done is done. It’s just us now. And we don’t have much time.” She approached, licking blood from her lips. It looked nourishing. Her eyes had lost the hardness; she looked serene.
She ripped off her filthy clothing, spilling sand, exposing her pustuled, blistered skin, releasing a miasma of mortified flesh. “Lay down.”
I obeyed. She climbed on top, pushing her ebbing life against mine. Blood drained from my head, dizzied with final human desire. I found her ulcerated mouth, kissed it hard.
Abruptly the fire in Cressida’s eyes extinguished. Dead-eyed, she stopped, collapsed on top of me, a stone embedded in the back of her head. I scrabbled away, clutching for my lumen, as a distorted shadow scampered off to the right, just out of my peripheral vision.
So this was it. I scrambled to my feet, brushed myself off, as if I had an audience.
I had won: Last human alive.
I had not killed Cressida. But then who had? Was I really the last one, or had I counted wrong. Had I lost my mind the way I had lost my body?
Anotherlight source, a vapory one. From it a shadow emerged, warped and alien.
No. Not alien.
My height, my shape.
It was, not to put too fine a point on it, Me.
Somehow I had known all along. The time-lines had split one of my-selves off and we had merged again here. I was the killer, or some version of me. Had I not suspected all along there was something violent…?
Something else was standing behind my other self.
I crept forward and realized I was in fact staring at the mirrored panel of the model calyx, bronzed over and warped. I was staring both at my reflection and the reflection of something behind me.
I noticed individual details first, my merciful brain sparing me the truth as long as it could: The red hair, the pale skin, the glittering, excited eyes…
Demmaline emerged from the shadows.
My impulse was to hug her, but the practiced way she removed the jagged chunk of rock from Cressida’s head held me back. She had brought her own light, just like in my dream — an ordinary lumen.
After a long pause I managed, “Another time-line?”
“Nope. Just me. Been here all along, tracking you. I was in the supply pod you couldn’t open. I waited an hour and came out.”
“Those were your father’s ashes in your pod.”
“Good one. That’s why the urn was so light. Remember?”
I sat on the floor. “But why?” Hopefully that covered everything.
She plopped cross-legged to the floor, wincing. “The mission was doomed before we even launched. It was doomed as soon as we unlocked the timegate. Cosmic radiation started pouring in from the other end, without even our puny earth atmosphere to absorb it. And I couldn’t shut the gate. God I tried. That’s why I had to take the phones, move up the launch, bar the scientists. In hours it would have been a worldwide emergency.”
“But you went through with it.”
“Of course. Don’t you see? I was on the run. Escaping. Not in space but in time. But not to 2100. I went far in the future as I could spin the wheel.”
“You were afraid you’d face judgement in 2100, get torn apart by a mob. Or worse, prove your father right. So you headed to the end of time, past anyone left to judge.” I examined her. “You’re not dying.”
“I am. Though I still have hopes.” She looked up at the roof as if salvation lay that way. “I bought myself some time with radiation pills, but it’s still getting me. The gamma rays are still pouring out after all this time. Amazing readings.” She dug out a flashing red doohickey and held it toward him. “That’s why no one’s here to greet us. The radiation wiped everyone and everything out, within a few years of us leaving, as you probably gleaned on the way here. Except those weird plants.”
“You wiped out the whole world. And now you’re wiping out your own crew.”
She had the nerve to shrug. “Does it matter now, Jackson?”
“Why not just tell me? Like the villains in the movies. Saving your strength for someone better?”
Her eyes widened. “Yes,” she said excitedly. “I knew you would head here. I had to make sure there was nothing here that could be used against me. I need to be able to tell my story with no contradiction. But there’s nothing here. No silicon DVDs. Nothing.”
“But we were all going to die anyway.”
“It’s not just humankind I’m thinking about. You were right in the forest. I do have the long view.”
My God. “That was you?”
“Did she sound like this?” She tried to mimic the treacly voice she’d used, but hit a coughing fit. Yes, she was failing too.
“How’d you do it?” I asked, putting wonder in my voice, playing for time, betting she couldn’t resist trying to impress the next-to-last human.
“T.R. I coaxed away in his sleep because he was closest. Thank god for Arthur’s sword. The desert was a challenge, but there were enough rocks to play hide and seek with.”
“Would you have killed me first if I’d been closest?”
“Just say I’m glad you’re here with me, at the end.”
I pictured T.R., covered in blood, and at last realized what I’d been missing from the picture. None of us standing there could have killed him. Our clothes would have been covered in blood, just like Brett’s had been after removing the sword from T.R.’s chest.
“I took the long way around while you guys were at the gas station and beat you. Find anything interesting?”
Again I lied. “Nope. You sabotaged Captain Burgess’s pod, right?”
She nodded. “Help to make my death look more like a pattern. Plus, cut off the crew’s head. Though Cressida did a fine job until she cracked. Helped me out with Arthur.”
“Why not just sabotage all the pods, save the trouble of bumping us off one by one?”
“Because I had no idea what I’d confront when I opened my pod. Majestic civilization or wasteland. Or a fire-fight. Might have needed some company, or diplomacy. Might have encountered aliens, even. I didn’t count on the crash destroying the calyx, but that was fine. I couldn’t go back to 2050 anyway.”
“You and your aliens.”
She leaned in, whispered as if there was someone left to overhear. “They’re tracking us, Jackson. I saw their ship. It’s like a small moon. They might be parked outside right now. I wish you could meet them with me, but I can’t risk it.”
I could grasp the hope she had: The last of her kind, cured of her radiation poisoning by miracle alien tech. The only one left alive to tell the story of her species. A treacherous step, but still better odds than facing the wrath of humankind in 2050. But before meeting her hoped-for aliens, she had to eliminate anyone who could challenge her tale. The aliens in the
Which looked a lot like the three under the gas station: Tiny models for the one in the sky.
“Enough talk. I’m stronger than you, Jackson. Here. ”Demma dug into her pockets, offered me a handful of capsules. “I kept them.”
“Radiation pills? It’s too late.”
“No. These are cyanide pills. In the blue pack?”
Oh yeah. I took them from her, tossed them into the dark.
She shrugged. “Have it your way.”
Demma oh-so-casually laid down her lumen. In a minute or so she would just as casually shift her left hand to pick up her bloody rock and swing her last killing blow on the return.
But not quite yet. And I didn’t want to die just yet. Because I had just realized that at that point, a rock was almost as good as a chisel.
I didn’t plot. I didn’t try to outwit her. I just acted, getting my feet behind me and springing forward. She was stronger, but I had that single precious second of surprise and hurled my body on top of the rock, clamping it to my chest and rolling out of her grasp. She screamed; I got to my feet and ran blindly toward the alcove.
The edge was sharp, hopefully sharp enough. In my sickness I had the warped idea the blood could serve as ink. If I needed more to write a message, I could open my own veins. My blood wasn’t doing me any good anyway.
Demma panted after me. I had a head start, desperately pumping my arms, one holding the lumen, the other hefting the rock, willing my deteriorating frame faster in the dark. Still, she was in better condition and by the time I could train my lumen on the old marble plaque she had caught up.
The urn had crumbled, but the tall marble plaque still stood, the way we had left it 48 hours and 100,000 years ago. I read the same inscription about Pinkston upon that nearly blank slate, stone that had patiently waited eons for another hack. I was ready to make my addition, trying to compress in my head to save time and energy and space, but still declare to whoever would ever read the message that Demmaline had…
But someone had beaten me to it.
A broad grin cracked my lips; I lapped the blood, tasted the salt. I wasn’t dead quite yet, and I had figured something out.
Marble tablets, preserved properly, in a moderate clime, last longer than papyrus, paper, or even silicon DVDs. It had been a sloppy rush job, but the words read clear enough:
—We’re Coming Back.– The Other Side of the Coin.
Like they knew she would come back to the same spot and read it.
I rounded on Demma, aiming my lumen into her eyes. “I could have forgiven you so much. But smashing up Riverside? She didn’t do anything but be nice.” She shrunk back. I stepped forward, pressing my advantage. “So what does ‘the other side of the coin’ mean to you — D?”
But I knew already. My fears of split timelines had been wholly justified. And it had all come down to a coin flip.
Arthur’s coin. On some timelines Arthur catches the coin, and Demma launches us toward the far future and crash-lands in a pile of rock. That was us.
But sometimes, on the flip side, as it were,
Arthur misses, and the coin slips through the gap in the floor, jamming the works. The calyx fails to launch, leaving us all stuck in radiation-doomed 2050. We (“We”?) learn the news of the catastrophe. The white coats frantically repurpose the space mission, via the lab underneath a gas station in the desert.
And somehow, someway, someone or something else ends up here – a stalled version of the original mission, come to meet us, the version that took off.
At the end.
A bass throb shook the ceiling. “They’re coming,” I shouted over the din. Demma looked frantically about, inspecting the crevices as if to hide.
A quiet lattice of red light evaporated a circular hole in the ceiling; concrete dust rained down in a clingy mist. An enormous spherical ball, far larger than the model spheres, nudged its way out of the hole and descended to a hovering, silent stop 30 yards away. There was a pungent smell of ozone. The glowing red surface attenuated into a pale magenta, as if the ship was cooling down.
For it was most definitely a ship. And a ship meant a crew. “We” were coming back. Would they be us? Would they know who won the Super Bowl?
Demma grabbed my hand, terror in her eyes. I let go. She rasped something about crossed timelines, but at the end she wasn’t worth listening to.
Through my blurred vision I saw human-shaped forms emerge from the sphere.
I wanted to see them if it was the last thing I did.
Bio: Clay has had stories published in The Santa Barbara Review, Abyss & Apex, Morpheus Tales, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and Hello Horror. His website (claywaters.org) features his self-published cozy mystery novel Death in the Eye, available in paperback https://www.amazon.com/Death-
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