The ground had already baked to a deep, sunburnt orange. Grains of dust lingered in the air, and I stared at the remains of my family’s farm. From the hill, I could see the empty pastures where our livestock used to reside, the rotting barn and house, the brittle grass of the forgotten meadow, and the shriveled trees that used to line the dirt-paved streetways. I closed my eyes and tried to remember what it had looked like before, but the image was a fading ripple in water.
The hill had always been my favorite spot because of the creature that inhabited the area. Its sleek white skin had a hard endurance to it, and the black irises were openings to other worlds. I pressed my eye to it, the rim cold against my seared face. A distant body, Nalara, glowed in the salmon-colored sky. Perth, a little distance away from Nalara, gleamed in a more conservative manner.
Despite being leagues away from the nearest city, light pollution still managed to etch its way into the countryside skies. The world’s ceilings never grew darker than a murky brown. Still, I tried everyday to look for stars in the sky, hoping that our planet was healing at least a little bit.
I laid face up in the dead grass, rigid stems digging into my back. The ground breathed hot air into my ears. I wondered what was going on in the cities, whether everyone was okay or if the melted icecaps had flooded the alleyways, the heatwaves had sucked the moisture out of the once fertile soil, the valued technology had failed to save them. I wondered if the world leaders were listening now, listening to the hunger that swept across the continents, listening to the 301,726 extinct species and their deceased voices that compelled us to follow them.
I said goodbye to the creature on the hill and draped a quilt over her shining body. She whispered goodbye back, her voice soaked with a sweet doldrum.
In ancient mythology, Nalara was the goddess of fertility and family. Our ancestors painted her on shrines and conducted elaborate rituals in hopes that she would bless them with a baby. Angered, Nalara could crumble the embryo and make the mother bleed by simply letting the thought cross her mind. And whenever a successful birth occurred, people gathered to sing prayers as an act of gratitude.
Nobody believed in Nalara or the other ancient gods anymore. Her name now donned our neighboring planet, a fiery system with skin like the organs of a volcano. Its charred cysts spat lava, cloaking the world in a dense methane atmosphere. They were the remnants of stars and meteorites, the electrical charges that surged through Nalara’s terra and magnetized its melting mantle.
My fingers stroked the edges of the pages, which were slowly crumbling in part due to the augmenting temperatures. Pen marks from years ago were chasmic in the paper, my muddled observations and sketches filling up every crevice of space. There was something comforting about the handwritten familiarity, something that my extensive online reports couldn’t mimic.
I flipped to one of the pages in the back. Instead of the mathematical equations and diagrams of celestial bodies, there were roughly sketched doodles and scribbled notes. I recognized my brother’s handwriting instantly. His cursive, perpetually slanted to the right, twirled across the page in looping orbits. The drawings were mostly from our family farm: stocky fruit trees and up-close examinations of leaves and flowers; the nearby lake that we used to go swimming in; depictions of animals, domesticated and wild.
My eyes began scanning the scattered messages that he had written.
Miss you, Gemma. I stole your notebook. Hope that city life is treating you well,and you’re making huge discoveries aboutspace.
It’s not the same without you. Mom and Dad are getting older and don’t have asmuch energy. Mostly me taking care of thefarm.
Wish you called us more. They miss you a lot, especiallyMom.
My stomach twisted into knots as I realized where this was going. An anxious lump began to forge in my throat, and no matter how much I swallowed, the feeling of guilt remained on my shoulders.
They’re gone. Mom went a few days ago, and Dad this morning. I’ve left youmessages, but you didn’t respond. Why? They missed you so much. All they ever asked me was whyyou never called, why you never came back tovisit.
I couldn’t hide from the truth anymore. Tears stained the pages, the aged ink bleeding like vines spreading across a wall. The burden of shame grew with every additional breath. My chest heaved in and out in spasming intervals, the notebook convulsing with my trembling hands.
Gemma. The world is dying. In a way, I’m glad Mom and Dad left so they didn’t have to witness this. All the animals have died from either starvation, dehydration, or heat exhaustion. The ground can’t support crops anymore. All I hope is that you’re doing something about this. You were always the sibling who knew what to do. I want to trust you, but I don’t know if I can after you left us. But you can do something. You have power in the government, you’re one of the space agency’s leading scientists. You can save us.
There’s nothing left for me here, and I know that you won’t be coming back. I hope you’re reading this.
My body snapped like a twig, the tectonic plates sliding out from underneath and fracturing the surrounding silence. The past was a silhouette at the door, watching the guilt flood the rotten hallways filled with remnants of another life. I did come back, and I came back to a deserted ghost town, as if the rest of the world had aged generations while I was still the same. The puzzle had already been completed for years, but I refused the truth until now.
My brother’s messages were seared into my mind. I wiped away the tears, my face hardening with reality as I placed the notebook back on the shelf, never to be read again.
The wind’s wheezing gasps cut my cheeks as the car sped across the empty highway. The creature, dismantled in the trunk, clanged against the sides every time we hit a bump. City buildings lined the distant horizon, and I pressed on the gas pedal to accelerate. I was an object speeding through time and light, letting the particles pass through my unbounded, massless body.
As I pulled into the city’s borders, traffic packed the streets and a deep, unanimous murmuring from the walkerbys hung in the air. Thick smog slithered through the maze of jagged buildings. Oxygen was thin, and while my trachea shuddered with its deep, slow breaths, my heart rate accelerated.
I stopped in front of a familiar house, now lined with wilted flowers and barred windows. My body heaved itself up the creaking stairway. I knocked on the door, my knuckles rattling the decaying wood.
A man about my age opened the door. Stress and sleep deprivation lined his face through his undereye bags and gaunt facial structure. He had a hollow stare that looked past me as if I were invisible, until something shifted within him and his face lit up with recognition.
“Dr. Kere,” I said, holding my hand out as an act of formality, “Long time no see.”
Dr. Kere’s house was dim and small with boxes littered everywhere, stacked on top of each other, some half opened and some fully sealed. He offered me something to eat, but nothing to drink. I sat down on the couch, scabbed with badly-sewn patches and open wounds to its stringy flesh.
“What brings you back to the city, Gemma?” he asked.
I paused, then answered. “I need your help. I need an engineer to help me with this.”
His eyes shifted to the wall behind me. “You’ve come to the wrong person.”
“The world is dying,” I said, “I’ve already mapped out the logistics of it, and where we’ll go, and what we’ll do up there. You just have to help me with designing the ship and we can propose it to the space agency. They have to say yes. It’s our last chance to save us.”
“Go up to where? Space?” Dr. Kere asked. His face twisted into a scowl, and he stood up. “I don’t want to talk to the space agency, or meet them, or even look at them. There’s nothing we can do at this point. Just accept it.” Dr. Kere took a few steps forward and stopped right in front of me. His metallic breath was hot against my face, like the glaring sun’s rays that I felt everyday at the farm. “Do we even deserve to survive?” he continued, “Think about it. We did this to ourselves. I don’t want to partake in a desperate plan to save a few individuals, or plan out some impossible ship. It’s not going to happen.”
I envisioned my brother crying over the corpses of our parents, the parents that I abandoned in an aimless chase for success. I saw him putting the notebook back on our shelf and walking out of our house, where he would first bury them in the brittle dirt, then hike six leagues out to the canyon. His body would decompose in the drained lake at the bottom, leaving the farm to solar radiation and suffocating gases.
I swallowed the resentment and looked at Dr. Kere sourly. “I’ll pay you,” I said, “However much you want.”
Dr. Kere agreed.
The hum of distant car engines intertwined with insect chitters resonated in the air. I put my eye up to the creature and adjusted its face to point up to the darkened sky. Alternating between looking at the sky and my paper, I began to sketch part of our solar system. Perth, the innermost planet and closest to the sun, was dense and lifeless. It was miniscule compared to the other planets, its surface dented with craters from invading comets and meteorites. Our planet was second to the sun, originally swept with sapphire oceans and a blissful warmth. We were the only ones known to sustain life. Now, our atmosphere was a burdening weight dragging existence down with it.
“I think I’m done,” Dr. Kere said, stepping back to show me his design. His cursive lettering looked eerily similar to my brother’s messages in the notebook.
I gave him a nod of satisfaction. “Look up,” I said and pointed to a spot in the sky, “That’s where they’ll be.”
He glanced up at the sky but quickly looked away.
I walked through the long hallways towards the two large doors, high heels clicking against the marbled floor, my old pantsuit flowing with the glacial air conditioning. Deeply buried memories began resurfacing, one with each step and corner of the space agency’s headquarters, until I arrived. I smoothed the creases on my tucked-in shirt and straightened the blazer before pushing the two doors open.
Familiar faces packed the large room, uniform in their expressions and staring down at my small presence. Dr. Kere, dressed sloppily, followed behind me. I walked up to the podium at the center of the room, all of their faces pointed towards me and waiting impatiently.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the International Space Agency,” I said, my voice quivering with nervousness, “I’m Dr. Gemma Typh. I used to work here as a leading astrophysicist, and some of you might know me. I’ve come here with a plan.”
I laid out a large poster on the table with the sketch of the sun, Perth, our planet, and Nalara. The three planets differed in composition, sequentially getting larger from Perth to Nalara. I drew out the orbits and held the poster up in the air.
“We can send a spaceship into our planet’s orbital, one that can sustain life for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. The individuals will be put into hibernation, set to wake up at a certain time in the future. I’ve calculated that our planet will take approximately nine hundred years to heal, and once the individuals wake up from hibernation, we can send them back down to repopulate. Our species will live, along with our advanced technological knowledge.”
I took out another poster showcasing the spacecraft orbiting our planet in greater detail. “We have the materials to build this and launch it into space. All we need to do is choose the individuals who will go on this spacecraft. We’ve calculated that it can sustain six individuals total: three males, three females. Someone in good health who’s not a known carrier of any disease.”
Talk was already stirring, and the faces were now turned towards each other instead of at me. I stepped off the podium and gestured towards Dr. Kere, who took my place to discuss the spacecraft’s design.
“Hello everyone,” he started, “I’m Dr. Kere, an aerospace engineer who also used to work here. Spacecrafts for hibernation should be preferably smaller in size, which is why we’ve designed this spacecraft to be compact and quick-to-construct, while still being functional. It consists of six hibernation pods that will be shielded against radiation, along with a common room to store essential items like medical care and food rations.” He held up another poster that mapped out the spacecraft’s structure. Dr. Kere cleared his throat and continued. “Now, we must also discuss the practicality of this idea,” he said, “We’ve never successfully put anyone into a long-term hibernation before. We’ve never sent anything into our planet’s orbit before. We’ve never built or launched a spacecraft of this complexity before. This idea is a huge risk and drainage on whatever supplies we have left. Is it worth it?”
My heart sank, the faces’ mutters growing louder until they crescendoed into a profuse uproar. I ran up to the podium and pushed Dr. Kere off, waving my hands frantically in the air to try to get anyone’s attention.
“I know it’s a risky idea! But it could work!” I yelled, but I was drowned by the other shouts fighting to be noticed.
I turned to Dr. Kere and pushed him against the wall, my voice escalating into a vomiting wail. There was no regret on his face, and even as my hand came down on his swollen cheeks repeatedly, he looked unfazed and almost proud of himself.
“Why did you do this?” I asked, still choking on my own tears. “Don’t you want to survive? Save the world?”
“Technology is a curse, and I know that you agree with me. Isn’t that why you left to stay at your farm in the first place?”
I stopped, my hand hovering over his face. For a second, he looked like my brother—how they both had strong opinions and wouldn’t back down about what they believed in.
“Let nature do its course of work,” he continued. “We deserve to die off, and you know it.”
Later, I drove back to my farm and discarded all of the plans. I reassembled the creature on the hill, balancing its bulky torso on the tripod and staring into its obsidian eyes. Perth was even fainter than it was before, but Nalara still glowed persistently. I thought of the goddess who would likely be disappointed with what we’d become, her finger compressing the core of our planet and pulping the life out of it. We were the embryo to her, and she made the whole world bleed like the mother with leftover tissue in her inner thighs and a broken fetus.
The once dormant volcano erupted, layering the farm in a crust of magma that wasn’t too different from Nalara’s surface. The creature was gone, an artifact to be forgotten like the farm, the city, the world. I was the only swimmer in a sea of fire, the passionate heat radiating off my cadaver, but I felt at peace for the first time.
Life was gone, and for billions of years the universe would be void of it. I thought about how I was wrong, because our planet would most likely never heal from this large of a catastrophe, how we would be erased from history and future generations would never find traces of our existence because it would all be burned to ashes, devoured by the lava, left as food to the fire. I thought about how in billions of years, abiogenesis would permeate in the future oceans, the organic compounds combining to create the first signs of life. Even though the sky was shrouded with storm clouds and strikes of lightning, I looked up to where Nalara was and envisioned her rich oceans, her fertile soil, her rolling hills—just as our planet had been many years ago. She would evolve into civilizations like ours, industrial enterprises that spread like fever, destined to meet an identical fate. Life was a continuous cycle, with the same origins and the same endings.
I closed my eyes and let providence wash over me.
Katherine Wong is a student at Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) in the Creative Writing Conservatory. She enjoys writing speculative fiction, poetry, & songs. Her work has been recognized in numerous competitions including the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She also is a writer for the LA Times High School Insider & frequently reviews science fiction entertainment & covers current public health issues. Outside of writing, Katherine plays the piano & runs a community service project called STEM THE ART, which teaches youth a combined curriculum in the sciences & the arts.
Honorable Mention, International Young Writers Prize, Fiction