Monday 22 February 2016

A Short Short Story

Thought I'd try this one out on my blog, for anyone who likes old-fashioned sf. If you guess the ending early, please let me know, because it probably relies on the twist.

The Return

a short story by

Garry Kilworth

Segna stared at the straggled line of the last of humankind. It curved away from him and into the middle distance. Most eyes were on the sunset. Probably the last they would ever see clearly. It was indeed a beautiful sight, the fiery colours of their small star enhanced by the many and various spurting geysers of flaming lava. Orange, yellow, red and hints of blue and green colours in the molten spray. Beautiful, but deadly to life. A quick killer though, quicker than the arid, dusty plains, the dry river beds, the bare mountains.
The surface of the world had become uninhabitable for mammals, birds and reptiles. Some groaned that it was end of the world, but it wasn’t, it was merely the end of life on terra firma. The world would continue, but in its present form: windswept deserts, grim mountains, waterless valleys, all decorated by earthquakes and by volcanic eruptions. Indeed there were so many volcanoes now one might have said the world was breaking out in pustules which would see its demise. Except that it was not a sentient creature like a human and therefore would survive in a new state, one of burning landscapes, skies full of fire and rocks shaped by wind and heat.
            ‘Are we almost ready?’ asked Segna of his companion, Ritili. ‘I’m finding it difficult to breathe in this atmosphere.’
            ‘I think we all are,’ replied his beloved.
            They had indeed been getting ready for this moment for a long time, aeons in fact. The mindset was more important than anything else. It was important to accept their fate, not rage against it or wail about their misfortunes. Humans had always been vulnerable psychologically. They had made wars with remarkable frequency, killed each other with consummate ease, getting better and better at it with each new era as weapons became more efficient and – yes – more terrible. But they had suffered for it, mentally, most of them. Often those who caused or manufactured a war took no part in it, while those who did came out with badly damaged minds. Often afterwards the number of suicides of combatants exceeded the deaths of those who fought and died in battle.  Those who chose to live on did so with heads full of terrible nightmares.
            And not just the wars. Even natural disasters caused embedded emotional and mental stress following the event.
            So it had been important for Segna’s ancestors to prepare their minds for this moment from a long way back in geological time. The more intelligent and visionary among them had known it was coming by the changes wrought in their physique. One does not leave the earth for an environment alien to human form without some sort of metamorphosis, some sort of mutation, taking place. The process had been age-long-slow and marvellous. There were those who had looked up to the stars and wondered about the future of their race. There were those who simply despaired because any change was abhorrent to them and this was monumental change. This was change on a scale unimaginable to earlier generations.
            As the evening slid into night, the silver rain became more visible. Meteors were falling from the sky and raising dust clouds as they hit the ground. From where Segna stood, they looked numerous, but in fact they were not so thick as to greatly concern those in the line. There were many miles between each falling piece of natural space debris, though of course it was possible that one might land exactly on the area where the humans were gathered. Haste was probably a good idea.
            However, Segna could sense a great deal of reluctance to depart. He himself felt deep unease and concern. A man or woman does not like to leave forever what they have known all their lives: the place their ancestors called home. This land, this terra firma, had been beautiful once, with trees, flowers, birds and animals. And Segna’s forefathers and mothers were the imaginative creators of beautiful artefacts and objects: wonderful buildings, parks, exquisite timepieces, brilliant artwork, poems, vast cities, many, many things that touched the soul and roused the fires of the mind. All these had gone, were naught but dust and there was really nothing to stay for, nothing to love and adore, either natural or manufactured.
All, all was a wasteland of dirt and stone.
            The moon now rose over the distant mountains, a placid golden orb. There had been a city there too, once upon a time. And one on Mars. But cities on such desolate places need sourcing. Without Earth producing and providing for their needs, the far communities withered and died, those who lived in them either staying and passing away of old age, or returning to the home planet. Ghost cities now, with punctured domes and crumbling interiors. These experiments had been exciting at the time, but were unsustainable once a horrible future began to take its toll on humankind.
            Segna took in a breath and found himself gasping.
It was time.
He signalled to the line along the beach.
They began shuffling gracelessly on their bellies down the strand towards the edge of the ocean. They wriggled awkwardly, their flipper-arms spraying sand into the choking, already-dust-filled atmosphere. At the very pale of the ocean the surf made music with shingle, encouraging them forward. However, though the fine, white spume beyond looked inviting, some were still reluctant to leave the land for good.
Finally, even the most hesitant of them began their short journey, knowing they had to return permanently to their ancient environment, the salt-water world, home of the first life, the place from whence they had come several million years in the past.
Segna waited until the last of them had entered the waves and had submerged, before joining them. The water was tepid and pleasant. He loved water, always had, just like his nearest ancestors. For some time now he and his kind had needed to be close to water, in order to keep their skins wet. Indeed they spent as much time in and under the waves as above them. They had become mudskippers of a sort, reluctant to let go of the land forever, but equally at home in the sea. Now the land had become completely untenable.
The ocean was bountiful. The cycle could begin again.
Evolution, not Man’s ingenuity, was the saviour.