A dystopian planet earth can no longer support humanity. The search for water deep underground leads the last humans to an unexpected encounter.
Echoes | Lost
Only the scientists had survived. When the surface of the planet had become intolerable, they had blocked themselves in to the earth. The rivers had dried up, vegetation burned. So the scientists, the only remaining community of rational beings sought protection and water; they followed the ancient channels and sink holes, progressing in long single columns into the depths of the earth, humans shambling down towards the mantle of the planet.
Enduring the utter lack of visibility, the scientists soon grew impatient with natural selection and turned their considerable minds to finding new methods for seeing in the total darkness.
Within a few weeks they built a test model from scraps of metal and other materials they had brought with them. They developed a construction of spectacles that could detect the outlines and shapes all around and although, necessarily, each tangled mass of metal would be different, they all performed the same function. Within two generations every human underground wore these contraptions. Hundreds of scientists, and their children placed the spectacles on their eyes and began to explore their dark domain, seeking ever lower, in long, desultory lines.
They kept the contraptions on for longer and longer each day, week, month. Eventually they would sleep with them on. And soon the number of scientists who knew what anything had originally looked like, dwindled, leaving their children, and those who had been born underground to continue the fight against irrelevance and disaster.
Each successive generation of scientists lost a few more of the basic skills, and soon ran out of materials. They built no new technologies, there were no giants on whose shoulders they might climb, and so they clung grimly to the remnants of original machinery.
Over time, they had grown used to the distant sound of the underworld. Quiet scuffles in the distance echoing through the narrow corridors, slides and scree shifting above this heads, the scuttling and shuffling of animals that accompanied ,stalked or preyed on them.
Recently they had all begun to feel huge shocks that rumbled through the underground caverns for hours.
One day, the last long line of scientists stumbling down into the planet, turned as one, and heard to the roar of heavy rocks several leagues above them, closer than ever. Soon there would be a crescendo of noise and in the following days a storm of rock, grit and dust would engulf all of those who could not find a recess to cower within.
The bellow of rock grew closer still, the human line had just pushed on through a narrow crack onto a ledge that led to the natural steps and a plateau that stretched long into the dark. It was the tipped edge of an ancient seam, dislodged by some recent earthquake. A dribble of water spilled down through the opening, as the line shuffled through, aware of the racing tide of rock behind them. If they went too far, they would be swamped on the plateau, but if they could flatten themselves against the side, the rock flow would fall past them and settle.
But as the sound grew louder and closer they realised that something was different, it was too regular, the thunder was loud but not erratic. And a curious glow arrived like fingers around the edges of the top of the distant cavern, the passage through which they had passed only two days before.
The sound grew, the faint light bloomed, like an ache in the darkness, pushing its way into shadows that had never been vanquished. And the line of scientists turned in awe, blinded by the lambent spectacle, entranced by the horror and the beauty of the oncoming tide as it crashed down, slapping and breaking across the sides of the rock, rearing up alongside the shivering, timorous line.
And rather than rock, or dust, the scientists saw that the noise was made by hundreds and thousands of small, silver spheres, many of which bounced into the folds of the torn clothing of the scientists, each of whom shrank from the sight of their fellows, suddenly illuminated for the first time in generations. Emaciated, disfigured, with weird contraptions forged into their eyes and ears, they did not carry the true likeness of themselves in their own minds.
As the thick silver tide flew by a hand shot out from its narrow alcove and pricked a sphere in it’s bony fingers. The dilapidated human pulled its hand back into the crevice and turned the sphere in its fingers, staring down the makeshift technology that had allowed it to see in the deep, dark corridors of the earth. But it could barely see beyond the bright, blinding light, a brightness that made the scientist shudder at the strangeness of this invasion.
The storm of silver spheres rumbled past for hours, but then raced on, across the plateau, filling it, before sliding further.
The scientist stared at the sphere. The sphere stared at the scientist.
Stillness superceded the noise of the storm. The sound of the spheres disappeared slowly into the earth, reverberating for days, weeks, months, years.
“Can you still see ‘em? These are pretty weird creatures underground. Are you getting the pictures?” The silver ball relayed the images to the beings on the surface of the planet who clustered around their giant screens. All they could see was a murky eye.
“I can’t reach it. There seems to be a barrier.”
“What happens if you turn…”
“I can’t. The human holds me too tightly. And if I could, I’d join the others.”
“Of course. All the others have gone.”
“I think this one’s blind. “
“Perhaps we could join with these blind head creatures. We have the sight, they have the mobility. Then we could find the planet’s water more easily.”
“Don’t be daft. When it takes its barrier down, I can spin into its head and occupy its cranium.”
“Yes, but then all you’d see is the inside of the skull. “
“Hmm, ‘spose. “
The sphere paused.
“You know. I don’t think its alive.”
“How long have you been down there, friend?”
“Well, only 300 cycles of their sun, of their years.”
“Oh, that’s no time at all.”
“Ok. I’ll see what happens to this barrier, if I turn up the brightness.”
The sphere flared. The hand that was holding it in its rigamortised grip collapsed as the body that had been staring at the sphere slid into dust.
“Oh, they’re a bit flimsy these humans. No wonder they didn’t survive.”
And so, the final human form scattered in the subtle breezes underground, joining the billions of others that had once inhabited this barren planet, the last remnants of water to be sucked dry by the spheres, and transported elsewhere.
Text, image, audio © 2014 Jake Jackson, thesefantasticworlds.com. Thanks to Frances Bodiam, Logic Pro, the Twisted Wave Recorder App, Apogee Condenser microphone, Rotring pens and inks, and Alfons Schmidt’s fantastic Notebook for Mac app.
Part of a new series of micro-fiction stories, published on Wattpad, released as These Fantastic Worlds SF & Fantasy Fiction Podcast on iTunes and elsewhere, and on this blog.
More next week…
There are a few more stories in this series:
Here’s a related post, 5 Steps to the SF and Fantasy Podcasts