GUEST POST: The Apocalypse at the End of the Inkwell, by James Wylder

I’m back from the wedding, obviously, but I never got this James Wylder story up.  Enjoy!  


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Artwork by Chase Jones.

Let me take you back to a time before your dreams, when the greatest things in the universe were just an inkblot on the horizon. This was in the days before I realized there was more to the inkblot than the slight fades in it we call stars, and the deep rivers we call the sunlight. These were the days of Ahnerabe station, the days with my family, the last days I really felt like there was anything so wonderful but to live in the thin metal halls that rotated endlessly outside of orbit.

Our home was built a long time ago, some say it was by people from Earth, and I suspect that’s true, but somehow it seems permanent and eternal, like the idea that the universe always was, that there was no beginning and we simply formed in a long string where the negatives were as long as the positives and the dead center was our own breath. But it wasn’t really so, and there was a big bang, despite some scientific disagreement. We all had a beginning, a place best described as where we thought there was no beginning. The time of no change. Just like the universe, it all ended with a Big Bang, and the beginning began.

My father wasn’t sure what to think about the noise, after all, if it was an impact from a piece of space rock, it meant we were likely all going to be dead shortly to make that much noise, so he tried not to think about that. I didn’t try to stop, and I remember I was shuddering in fear, as I spun in the gravityless air. Father hesitantly told us to put on our space suits, and he got out a toolkit, and headed towards the noise. If the hull ruptured as he went over there, there would be no father anymore, just a stick figure shaped fade on the inkblot, reflecting light back at us like a signal flare, its eyes forever locked in terror.

Luckily—No, I shouldn’t say luckily. I don’t believe in luck, any more than I believe in an eternal universe. It’s just too convenient. There was another bang, and then a weird noise, a noise that sounded horrible, like I imagined a banshee sounding like in bedtime stories in that moment you get in the sheets and you’re still cold and your mother hasn’t kissed you yet. There was a silence, and then a clank, and slowly my father came into view.

He wasn’t alone.

* * * *

One of my first memories is of when my older sister got lucky enough to have her arm amputated. nShe was very excited. You always cut the legs off early, because if you don’t you could easily die if the inertial dampeners fail and your blood ends up rushing into them during an acceleration unit. They fail often. The arms are less deadly, so we keep them longer. Her eyes were so bright when my father got out the bone saw, and I was more jealous than you can imagine.

“Why can’t I lose an arm too ma?”

“When you’re older sweetie. And its Artemis’s birthday!”

She told dad to do it without anesthetic, and he was so proud of her. Sure, she blacked out, but it was worth it. When it was time for me to lose my first limb, I was an embarrassment. I tried to be strong like sis, but I just cried and cringed and thrashed as the teeth of the knife cut into me. My dad sedated me. The last thing I saw on his face was that look of utter disappointment.

* * * *

“Who… Are they?”

My mother could have asked a million more questions, but that question was good enough.

“They’re explorers. They say they came from a station of Titans and Gods.”

“Olympus Station,” one of them said, through her pierced lips, the tattoo running along her lower and upper lip, along the side of her nose, before climaxing into an explosion of color around her eye. The tattoo faintly glowed, just like I could make my limbs do. Their spacesuits didn’t match, and were a gaudy mix of red and purple for one, and yellow and black for the other. They had what I was fairly certain was a “cat” emblazoned on it, which was one of the mythical “animals” I’d heard so much about.

“I thought we were the only ones left…” my mother stammered. The two women looked at each other.

“The only ones of what?” one of them said, in a tone of voice I had never heard before.

“People.”

* * * *

There used to be a lot of people on Ahnerabe station. There were a lot of other children there that I played with, and we would roam around in the zero gravity, bouncing balls around. There was a sports team I was on, but I can’t remember the rules to it, except that it involved swimming through the air to place a ball in a receptacle, and that I was descent at it. On my team was my first crush, Selene.

Unlike every one else on board, whose hair was blonde, hers was white, and she was teased for it immensely. The most common insult was “Crone Head.” I found her one day, curled up in a ball, slowly rotating around, her tears spiraling out from her body, glittering in the emergency lighting. I floated up to her, and pushed through the tears. It was the first time anyone ever hugged me, and I felt perverse when I felt the warmth of her body.

I’m ashamed to say I ran away.

* * * *

The two women looked at each other, and their faces made some expression I couldn’t read, and I blushed and turned away.

“You seriously think you’re the last humans?”

“We did, and could you… Make yourselves decent?”

They looked totally confused. One looked down her spacesuit as though she’d unzipped it on accident.

“What the…”

I didn’t know the next word they said, neither did my parents.

“You know…” My mom leaned in, though it didn’t help since her voice was coming out of her spacesuit speakers. “Your faces are showing.”

Their jaws went slack, and they just stared at us for a long time. Eventually, my mother undid the locks on her helmet, and showed them her mask, the smooth white oval of it contrasting hugely with their indecent flesh, its one red optical input over where her left eye was seeming so elegant and efficient.

“You don’t…. Show your faces to each other?”

“It’s indecent.”

“Are you some kind of cult or something?”

My sister intervened. “Clearly the land of Olympus has very different rules about these things, Mom.”

“Doesn’t mean they’re right…” my mom muttered.

“So, who are you two?”

“Better yet, who the hell are you guys?”

* * * *

The Family.

There is my father, Apollo. He is a wise man, after all, he and mom kept us alive all these years.

Though he cried all the time that we were the end of humanity. He liked to keep a pattern of flowing water on the video panels of his limbs and mask, it gave him a stoic tranquil appearance I could always trust in.

There is my mother, Aphrodite. She always enjoyed the hydroponic gardens we got our food from, and she used to take us there to look at the plants. While we didn’t need all of the surviving gardens to live, she kept them up, because she loved the greenery. It was so amazing to see how nature worked, that if you just put a plant in a stream of nutrient injected fluid, it would grow big and strong and make tasty things for you to eat. I swam through the zero-g jungle, and my mother would encourage us. I used to pretend there were animals there, but I knew they weren’t real, though that didn’t stop my sister from teasing me about it. My mother always kept her skinpanels in a pattern of greenery. It suited her.

There is my sister, Artemis. She was the most adventurous of us. After all, if her or I died, there was no one left for us to mate with, and we were brother and sister, which would be highly immoral. So that was the end of it. And she took her apocalyptic certainty as an excuse to do anything. She would go on spacewalks, just for fun, and see if she could hold on untethered. She would remove some of her limbs, or modify them, and try to wriggle into small spaces. She was brave. And she was dangerous. Artemis kept her skinplates grayscale, shifting colors, usually towards black.

And there was me. Archimedes. I usually forgot to turn my skinplates on, so they just stayed the generic white they are if you don’t use that feature. I was the youngest, last one born, and since I played it safe, I knew I would be the last one to die. Alone in the metal tubes of my cold heart home, pumping despair into the inkblot.

* * * *

The one in the red and purple was named Grit Simmons, which didn’t sound like a real name, and the other was named Cat Conkers, which sounded even less like a real name. They explained Titan station was like Ahnerabe station, only larger, and with more people on it.

“Did you ever find more normal people?” My sister narrowed her vision receptacle at me sadly.

“Normal?”

“You know, who look like us.”

“No, I can’t say we ever have.”

They took off their spacesuits, and I saw one of them had robotic legs, and another robotic arms, but their limbs had all of the gizmos showing, they weren’t covered at all. It was strange.

“So how long have you been living out here?” Grit said.

“Our whole lives,” my father replied, “We honestly thought we were the only ones left. That’s what our parents told us.”

“Is the Earth finally safe yet?” My mother perked up, “Or do the other survivors all live on spacestations too?” Grit had to blink a few times, which reminded me of a computer light flickering to process data.

“Er, well a few places are irradiated or polluted, but Earth and Mars have always been okay, I mean, as much as it can under Centro.”

“Is Centro some kind of protective radiation field?” Artemis inquired.

“No, its, um, no. No its not.”

“It’s a government. They are big wigs who run everybody’s life and tell people what to do and stuff.”

Cat helpfully finally chimed in. “Do you have any meat? Or is this veggie stuff all you have to eat?”

I was still wondering why people wore large wigs on Earth, but my mom had a different question.

“You… eat people?” The pair twisted their faces in very weird ways.

“No! Of course not!”

“Why would you think that?”

“Where else would you get meat!”

“Animals!”

“Animals aren’t real, everyone know that.”

“What?” Just… Stop. What?”

Needless to say, it was a long conversation.

* * * *

The time I didn’t run away was much more notable, and happened purely by chance. I was floating through the gardens, when I heard a sigh. I swam towards the sound, and found Selene, looking at some celery. “Selene?” She looked up, her hair seeming to shock into the weightless air, her vision receptacle widening. “Arch, I didn’t realize you were here.”

“I didn’t realize you were here either. I thought I was the only one who came here.” Her shoulders lowered with the faint hum of machinery.

“So did I.” We sat, and talked about the plants. It wasn’t the last time we met up there, we started doing it regularly. And soon the two of us were inseparable, Crone Head and Arch Disappointment, best of pals. She told me all her fears, and I hers. She wondered if we’d ever go to Earth. She said she’d like to, to see the plants there, and raise children. We wondered what it would be like to walk in gravity, and used to pretend to, pushing each other’s feet down, giggling all the while.

One night, as we were sitting together, Selene took my hand, and told me she’d been thinking, and she wanted to show me something. I shrugged, and said okay. I couldn’t believe what happened next: she reached up to her head, and opened her face plate, snapping off the latches installed in her skin, and letting it drift away.

“Only people who are married can see each other’s faces Selene…”

“Like they will approve us for admission to the gene pool. You’re… Special, Archimedes.”

“So are you.” Her face was… Immensely fundamental. Her eyes were a sort of pale blue, and she seemed to have to… close them occasionally, which she seemed to find difficult, and the tube leading into her eye seemed to block it partially. I wondered if eyes had been designed to do that before faceplates. Her skin showed scarring from where all of the attachments, wires, and tubes had been implanted, and her visage was wreathed in the silver teeth that held her faceplate on. And I realized I must look like that, and the more I looked at her face, the more I wanted to share mine with hers. I pulled off the latches, and my faceplate floated up into the air, and then she leaned in and put her mouth on mine like they did in books, and I wrapped my arms around her, and hers around me, and I could feel her heartbeat, and the whir of her motors, and I think we both began to cry. I had never felt another person so close before. We met up many more times, and got closer and closer each time.

Her body felt like starlight on my skin, warm, yet it wasn’t far away, and she could whisper in my ear.

And I knew it was wrong, and that to be so close with another person was immoral, but we did it anyway. I held her close. And eventually, there were no barriers between us, and we wondered why it was that you were only allowed to make children by artificial insemination, because the alternative turned out to be… Better than anticipated, and I didn’t feel at all like the darkness.

* * * *

After they explained Mars (which was apparently communist) to us, which took some time, they began to get down to business.

“So look, we can get you off of here, take you somewhere where there are people.” Grit said.

My mother looked at my Father, “We can’t just let them die here.”

My Father nodded, “We need some time to think about this, to plan… To know what the outside world is like.”

“Oh come on, we do not have enough god damn time for this!” Cat pulled out a gun. I’d read about them. I’d never seen one before. “We’re taking over your station in the name of Olympus, now shut up and get on our damn spaceship before I blow your cultass brain into the next hemisphere.”

“Cultass?”

“Just shut up!”

“Cat, what are you doing?”

“I’m not letting your molly coddling get in the way of our survival!”

“You don’t even know if this will do that!”

“Well it’s worth a fucking shot!”

* * * *

The last time I’d heard that kind of yelling, the elders of the ship were meeting. We never learned what about, but in hindsight, they must have learned that there was something outside. They yelled, and at the end of it, some of the station decided to leave, and the rest decided to stay, but neither would do it without everyone. So ended, and started, the brisk war. It was over so fast. In the opening gambit, one side lowered the defensive grid for a chunk of the station, in time for a meteor to hit it. The meteor didn’t just crack us open with stardust, it poured us into the stars, and spilled our bloody guts into the void. It had been meant as a warning blow, a way to say, “This is the end, we all have to leave anyways now!” instead, the meteor tore through the living area, ripped off an arm of the station, and left the rest venting bodies and air. My father had us hide that night in the gardens, and we lived, and no one else did. We never heard from the missing arm. It was where Selene lived, and I dreamed for a long time she lived. But she didn’t. They were all dead. Spinning out like tears.

* * * *

My father’s blank faceplate stared impassively. The gun pointed at his head. I shivered. Not again.

* * * *

Before everyone died, I got my name. We weren’t born with names, just serial numbers. Mine was 0042623.

When I was old enough, my naming ceremony came. Most children got named after Gods, so when my naming time arrived, I wondered what it would be. Zeus? Apollo like my father? Or maybe some lesser God… I didn’t care, I was excited. My parents and the registrar sat, their vision receptors glowing red against the white walls.

“Welcome 0042623, are you ready to receive your name?”

I nodded excitedly.

“Now son, your mother and I have talked it over…”

“….And we’re naming you Archimedes.” That wasn’t any God I’d heard of.

“See… We care about you, but we’re under no illusions, your sister is the talented one, and you’re simply going to follow her, and support her. You aren’t the one who is going to achieve the greatness in our family, so we don’t want to give you a name that will give you any false ideas. So we’re naming you Archimedes Artemis, so you’ll never forget your purpose is to follow your sister.”

I was never so dismayed. The other kids called me “Arch disappointment” after that.

* * * *

“Don’t!” My mother cried, and Cat glared at her, and grabbed her by the hair. In a swift motion she slammed my mother’s head into the table, and then again, and again the blood seeping out from under the cracked plastic. My father tried to intervene, and she pointed the gun at him, and shot him in the head. Apollo fell, smelling of meat and circuits, and I screamed. I was glad my mother wasn’t alive to see that, in a way…

I lunged at her when she shot. I barreled at her, propelling myself off the wall, and ramming my metal shoulder into her chest. Her companion tried to get to her, but Artemis grabbed her, and clenched with her metal hands as hard as she could, crushing bone. We wrestled in the zero gravity, till the apocalypse was signed with ink.

Cat had a gun. And she tried to save her friend.

And she shot.

The station was old, and wasn’t designed to take the strange plasma belting gun she had.

It melted through the wall, it burned it, over and over as her shots went wild. There was a moment where only air was seeping out, then the wall burst out, and Artemis and Grit were ejaculated from the station, their arms still locked in a dance of violence, a dance that they would never finish, as their flesh froze.

Cat followed soon after, with the corpses of Aphrodite and Apollo, both heading towards the sun, fittingly. And I clenched onto the table, which was bolted to the floor, till all the air was gone, and walked to the next airlock…. Where I went in, the last survivor of the apocalypse. Just like I’d always known.

* * * *

“So, you just got on their spaceship, figured out the controls, and flew it here?” The man said. I nodded.

“That doesn’t sound too believable.”

“I don’t find any of this stupid place believable. You people are ridiculous. I’m still ashamed to see you showing your faces around here.”

“Right… So what do you plan to do now?”

I squinted my vision receptacle at him, and sighed.

“I wish I knew. I’m the last living man, in a world full of people. It’s not an easy thing to figure.”

He poured me a drink. My liver told me it required extra processing, but he said it was on the house, which he explained meant free.

No, free was wrong. I went outside the bar, as the mobs of flesh wandered around me, and I looked up at the speck of light in the inkblot, that was called Earth. And there was a moment where the world was the way it was, and the end became the beginning, and apocalypse formed a broken Eden.

* * * *

The end of the Earth was a terrible thing, and we all knew about it. It was one of the first things every child on Ahnerabe learned. The earth became corrupt, immoral, decadent, and it was washed away with a fire called radiation, partially. We were spared the first round, and we build rockets, and launched ourselves into space, building the station far from where anyone would ever find us. We hid, and avoided the apocalypse, a hidden arc sustaining the best of humanity. Very strict guidelines for who could go on the trip were assembled, and we were the descendants of those lucky few. As the world burned, we on Ahnerable stayed safe, knowing that when the Earth was ready for us we would go back, and repopulate it. It was the noble dream. It was the beginning of all things, it was the end of all things. We blurred into the shadows and took a gasping breath as we plunged into the inkblot, slowly turning around the sun, like a tiny marble, or Selene’s tears when I could feel her heart beat.

There was a light, and it was the knowledge that though everyone else was dead, we would live on.

And when we finished the story, the ink spilled along the page, and no one could read it but memories.

* * * *

“Cat?”

“Yeah, Grit?”

“You see that?” they’d drifted so far out, their ship running cold, but still propelled at speeds like the chariots of the gods through the darkness, that they didn’t even know where they had run to in running.

“Looks like some sort of spacestation.”

“Nobody builds a spacestation out this far, its lunacy. You couldn’t resupply.”

“But you could hide.”

“So?”

“The boss of Olympus might want another place to hole up, this could be our shot. She might forgiv—“

“She won’t ever forgive.”

“What’s the worst that happens, we end the world?”