Creative Column: ∞ A.D. by Sam Butcher

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A rocky plain – black, jagged, infinite. Impact craters, miles across. I march alone by the light of the Broken Moon, shattered into silvery masses against the empty canvas of the space beyond. No stars. Gone – burned out long ago, a cosmologist once told me. Nothing up there now but black holes with insatiable appetites, devouring what little matter remains. The occasional chunk of moon succumbs to gravity and plummets through the upper atmosphere. Rock. Dust. Fire. The sky falls a little more each day.

A greying Nomad Preacher once came to my village and said the long-gone Prophets of Earth-That-Was had foretold that humankind – through its ingenuity and ruthlessness – would outlive all other intelligent beings and bear witness to the End of Time itself. I’ve never been the religious type, but with the last dregs of humanity clinging to a barren rock as the universe collapses around us, I can believe the final days are approaching.

Why do I carry on?

Why would anyone carry on?

After my mother died from an infected billipede bite, our home settlement held too many memories. Our ultimate destination undecided, my father and I travelled from resource to resource; food, water, space junk. Once, while exploring the wreckage of an ancient starliner, we salvaged a radio receiver and picked up a broadcast. A recording, on loop. Hello, is anybody out there? Said a staticky voice. If you’re hearing this, my name is Darwin and I urge you to join me. I have succeeded in growing enough crops to fill the bellies of hundreds! Having been raised on algae scraped from the beds of undrinkable streams, I firmly believed farming was only a theory – a legend, even. This message was likely the ramblings of a madman, driven delusional by despair. After providing a set of co-ordinates, Darwin signed off with: Seek the Tower!

Despite my misgivings, my father insisted we finally had somewhere to be. Perhaps he’d needed a new sense of purpose – however ridiculous – in a universe without my mother. After innumerable days and weeks crossing parched steppe, we entered this cruel stony desert. We became nocturnal – to stop the nightcrawlers ripping the flesh from our bones while we slept. Nothing grew, save the odd purple-thorned shrub with blackberries. ‘Don’t eat them!’ my father warned. ‘Last mistake you’ll ever make.’

With nothing on which to forage, our supplies dwindled – and we starved a little more with each footfall. ‘Why are we putting ourselves through this hell to get somewhere we can’t be sure exists?’

My father took my hands in his, held very tightly. ‘Rolanda,’ he said, ‘promise that if something happens to me, you’ll carry on. Promise you’ll keep looking for the Tower. Remember – hope is the key.’

Unsure of how to respond, I nodded. I settled down to sleep, contemplating my father’s sudden earnestness. Usually, he quashed my doubts with relentless good humour. What had changed?

When I awoke, my father lay dead, glassy-eyed. His teeth were stained with thick, sticky juice – deep black. Later, I would find the last of my father’s algae had been transferred into my backpack.

Why didn’t I feel something? Because of exhaustion? Numbness? The inevitability? One burial mound later, I carried on. South by night – towards Darwin’s co-ordinates – until the sun rose each morning. Whether I believed in the Tower or not, at least I was honouring my father’s wishes. What else was there?

A cold sphere, nearing the end of its life, breaches the horizon, bathing the land in a dull crimson. I think about setting up camp, when… What’s that? A brownish column, silhouetted against the rising sun. Metallic, climbing a hundred feet into the dawn air. ‘It can’t be…’ I make out a figure on top, waving. ‘Darwin?’ I break into a run, heart pounding so hard it hurts. It’s true! It’s all true! I thought I’d shed my last tears years ago, but now they erupt. For my father, finally – ‘I did it, dad! I did it!’ – but there’s something else, a feeling my heart has never truly known. It intensifies with every step I take towards the Tower.
Is this… joy?
+ + + +
Darwin’s Tower had grown with his determination. From the top, he scanned the curve of the planet – just as he did every morning – when… Yes! Another survivor. A young woman seeking refuge from a dying world in a dying universe, like so many other hopeful refugees before her. Darwin waved and began the climb down the outside ladder to greet her.
Someone would eat very well tonight.

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