There was nothing like routine to create the perfect trap of monotony and repetitiveness in a life otherwise satisfying.
The elevator shuddered ever so slightly as it came to a gentle halt, and three men stepped off not a second later. Their footsteps echoed in the hallway, steady little beats that made a cacophony to anyone who was listening. Only one of them remained on his path to the back of the floor as the others went in their own directions. He headed toward the spacious office that he had been given as a perk to his promotion.
With a sigh, he opened the door, where a shiny bronze plate read:
NATIONAL AEROSPACE EXPLORATION AGENCY
He sat down with a graceful thud, his lithe figure molded perfectly to the leather chair behind him. Max Cordova was a young man whose years in a spaceship made him the only obvious choice for this position within the NAEA. His father had been the Executive Engineer, and his father before that had been the Executive Director of the whole company. There was no doubt that Max would follow in the long line of Cordova men who devoted their entire life to the discovery of new things within an endless space.
Max rubbed his eyes, dark smudges revealing the late night he had. Although he was the man who got first pick for any expedition, there was always a tall pile of paperwork waiting to be finished. And, being the kind of man he was, that pile grew and grew until there was no surface in his apartment left uncovered.
Releasing a breath, he grabbed a pen and started on the first pile to his right. Word after word flowed smoothly from his mind and onto paper, until the ink blurred and just became another piece of a blank, boring puzzle.
The day at the office was the same as any other, with Max taking a nap instead of eating the lunch he had made for himself the night before. At five o’clock, he packed up his briefcase and was on his way to the elevator when Lisa stopped him.
“Uh…This just came for you, sir.” His assistant handed him a thick folder full of papers inside. “I’m going to stay a few more minutes to finish up work.”
“Thank you, Lisa. Don’t stay here too late, all right?” He smiled at her briefly before entering the elevator.
Max didn’t utter a word as he got into his luxury car, staying silent as it drove itself to his beautiful apartment. He lived alone in what some would call a ‘bachelor pad’, and indeed, it was. A large HoloVid dominated most of the wall on the far side, with overpriced abstract pieces of art decorating the others. There was a large food dispenser in his kitchen so that he would never need to touch a pot or pan ever again if he didn’t want to, and the Cleaning Chute allowed him to simply place his dirty dishes in a small drawer where it would then be washed instantly.
But his mother always said that no matter how clean he made his home, no matter the good-paying job he had, he would always feel a little empty if he didn’t know what he was doing. Lately, with the infinite forms he had to fill out and the late nights, Max had begun wondering just when he would feel like he had a purpose. That was the goal, wasn’t it? To find out what your destiny was? At least, that was what he thought.
Just as he was getting into bed, he heard sounds from outside his window. In Nueva York – the largest city on the planet Earth – all windows were the HoloReflective kind: they could be as opaque or transparent as the user wished. Moreover, data could be displayed on the near-invisible screen, be it Holographs or Holovids or regular spreadsheets.
He glanced down to where two men were talking forty-seven floors below. Due to the way the buildings were oriented in Nueva York, all sounds echoed up into the sky. Judging from their swaying, stumbling movements, it was obvious that they were drunk.
“Heyy, man,” the taller one slurred. “Do you fink that, when the shtars die…they go to heaven?”
“Whaz ‘heaven’?” the other slurred back.
“You know…that place where all fings are good and ev…ev… all of us are happy and shtuff.”
“Oh, that heaven. Uh… I dunno, man. Heaven is for crackpots.”
“But…do you fink it exists?” The taller one looked up at the stars, and Max ensured that the window wouldn’t reveal what was behind it. “Like…up there…”
“I fink the crackpots shay that if we want to go to heaven…we have to believe in creation first.”
“And whaz that?”
“You know…where the world was nuffing and this big dude made the skies and the water… They call it The Beginning. Those druggies fink that we were made or somefing like that.”
“Oh… Ah, man, I fink I just threw up…”
At which point Max made his windows completely opaque and soundproof. Then, as if he hadn’t just listened to the conversation with bated breath, he snuck under his warm sheets and tried to sleep.
All night long, he tossed and turned, unable to forget the drunken discussion he had heard before bed. Creation, his mind whispered, Perhaps that is the answer I’ve been searching for.
So, at 4:21 AM, he bolted out of bed with a newfound sense of purpose. The first thing he did was grab his HoloPad so he could Boogle ‘creation’. Millions of articles showed up, and after ten minutes of scanning them, he finally clicked one that was titled, ‘Why Do We Exist?’
The whole passage was written by a Devout – the crackpots the drunk man was referring to – and Max spent two hours reading it. The Creator made us for a reason… Nuclear wars started the world over… Astronauts became voyagers… Conspiracy after conspiracy was explored, one after the other, like a string of dominos with no end.
Soon, it was nearing eight o’clock, and he would be late for work if he didn’t stop. However, he saved the page so that he would be able to return to it later on in the day.
Max’s thoughts were centered on the conspiracy theories for his whole trip to work, and he barely noticed when his vehicle stopped him in a place that was not his office. In fact, he barely noticed anything at all.
It was only when he was gagged and dragged inside a white van that he panicked. “Wh-”
“Shut up,” a woman’s voice said, face hidden behind a mask that betrayed her identity as a member of the Armed Forces.
“Where are we-” he began to ask, only to be cut off by a hand covering his mouth in the universal gesture of silence. Growing more and more frustrated, for indeed Max could have fought his way out with the combat training he had received from the time he could walk, he crossed his arms and tried to sit as still as possible.
After a few dozen minutes, the van finally stopped. There were no windows, but Max could only assume that they were in a dingy alley and this woman was about to dump him into the darkest canal the city had to offer.
The first thing the woman said was, “Why did you Boogle ‘creation’?” Well, it was more of a demand than a statement.
“Huh?” he eloquently replied.
“Creation. Why…did…you…Boogle it?” she reiterated slowly, enunciating every word as if he were a child. “Do you know something? Who told you?”
“What?” Max asked. “I don’t know anything, I swear.”
“Liar!” she yelled in his face. “Nobody Boogles ‘creation’ anymore. So, why did you? Somebody must have told you. Who told you?”
“Then how do you know?”
“I know nothing!”
“Tell me why.”
“I don’t know why!”
“But then how did you know?”
The other masked figure then cleared his throat, effectively silencing the arguing Max and the mysterious but aggressive woman. “Miranda, perhaps Max is telling you the truth. He is in obvious distress at the mere idea of being accused, and no, it isn’t because he has anything to hide. People Boogle weird things all the time.”
With narrowed eyes, Miranda stared at him for a moment longer before sighing sharply through her nose. “Fine. Forget about this.”
“Believe me, I will,” Max replied a little harshly, peeved that he was now officially late for work and had been kidnapped by this dynamic duo.
“Get out,” she said, opening the door only to reveal that they were parked just in front of his building.
Wordlessly, Max exited the van with his briefcase, fixed his tie, and strode toward the doors as if he was the king of the NAEA. To some people, especially the other cosmonauts, he was.
The first thing he did as soon as he sat down on his desk was to take out the unread folder Lisa had given him just the night before. It was a mission for any cosmonaut to undertake, but naturally, he was given the choice first because he had earned this position within the agency. This one was just another venture into the infinite darkness: an expedition of sorts.
After checking his schedule to ensure that there was nothing of grave importance coming up, he called Lisa and told her that he would be taking the job. She sounded surprised – probably because nowadays he only took on the interesting offers – but she said she would pass on the message to the higher-ups.
A few minutes later, Lisa came in to put the morning NewsPad on his desk before leaving without a word. Sighing, Max briefly glanced at the headlines in the collection of bad news, wondering why he still bothered with it. There were just a few of the same old titles to worry the general public:
GLOBAL WARMING THREATENS MAN’S EXISTENCE
CLIMATE CHANGE WRECKS EARTH
RESOURCES DEPLETED: WHAT DO WE DO?
SNOW BEARS AND OTHER SPECIES EXTINCT
He hated seeing the NewsPad, even if it was necessary to occasionally see worthwhile information, but nobody ever wrote about anything good anymore. When he was just a little boy, there would be news of a new marriage or perhaps a scientific breakthrough now and then, but these days it felt like the world was filled to the brim with pessimism.
Outside his window, he wouldn’t be surprised to see a crowd of people protesting in the quad outside the government building located at the heart of Nueva York. Everyday, there was a different issue to be fought, be it climate change or ethnocentrism or taxes. The people were growing more and more restless, and as greed consumed the world whole, Max pondered just who would be left standing at the end of it.
It was exactly nine days later when the agency was ready to send him into deep space in hopes of discovering some other new planet. He had spent that time covertly researching the origin of man, hours and hours with his eyes glued to the HoloPad. The Devouts had spent years and years accumulating all their theories and spread it over the InterWeb in order to ensure that the data would remain in this world forever.
And what he found was very interesting indeed. Still, he chalked it up to insane speculations instead of a solid argument.
“Are you ready?” Lisa asked him softly, jarring him out of his reverie.
He grunted in reply, fastening his helmet with a soft hiss.
“I hope you find something,” she said, stepping back to allow the platform to retract into the main body of the station.
“Lisa,” he called out right before entering the spaceship, feeling like it needed to be said, “I named you my successor should I fail to return.”
He didn’t allow her to reply completely before shutting the heavy metal door. Following protocol, he checked on all the dials to make sure they were set just right, his movements fluid and practiced. Max had been in this ship more than two dozen times, the inside as familiar to him as his own home. Due to his position within the NAEA, he was allowed to keep this ship reserved for him at all times, so no one else was even permitted near the massive craft.
There was a crackle in his ear. “Omega 183,” a robotic voice sounded in his ear.
“Hello, Cipher,” he answered, greeting the AI with friendliness even though the machine couldn’t comprehend emotions. Max buckled into the lone seat with rehearsed motions.
“Omega 183, you are clear for take off.”
“Great,” he muttered under his breath. “Thank you, Cipher.”
A pair of great doors opened at the top of the station, and the small window above him let him see a brief glimpse of the endless starry sky. The initial jump shoved him back into his seat, and first-time cosmonauts might have started sweating by then, but Max only sighed deeply and relaxed. To him, space meant peace and quiet, a luxury he was seldom given.
“Omega 183, control transferred to you. Expedition commenced. Twelve earth days. May space favour you,” Cipher finished, repeating the slogan of the NAEA as per the rules. A sudden quiet alerted Max to the fact that he was utterly alone now.
But in space, he supposed one never was.
On the twelfth day of his expedition, Max had found nothing. He was the cosmonaut of highest regard and esteem, yet he had seen nothing that hadn’t already been discovered by him in his two decades with the NAEA. Infinite space was laid bare for him, and even through the billions of stars and thousands of asteroids, none had been undocumented.
It occurred to him that perhaps Man had already seen everything space had to offer. “Impossible,” he murmured to himself, mind refusing to understand that there was nothing more to explore. “Impossible.”
Still, the universe would grant him one more wish.
A few hours before he was due to head back to Earth, Max was standing near the largest window of his ship, eagerly searching for any hint of a new planet.
“Red alert, red alert. Asteroid incoming. Impact: definite. Rerouting,” his ship’s AI informed him monotonously. “Earth not responding.”
He rushed back to the control board, studying the screens to see that, as a matter of fact, there was an enormous asteroid bound for him, its sheer size blocking any view of anything beyond its gray body. His fingers flew over the panels, mind disappearing into that place where determination and clever intellect reigned.
He calmly buckled himself in before continuing on his mad pursuit of evading the giant asteroid.
Finally showing the slightest hint of panic, he wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead, thoughts scattering.
The asteroid was a stone’s throw away.
In the corner of his vision, he spied an even larger shape in the distance. The blackness of it had escaped his notice for twelve days as he searched and searched.
He managed to get the Omega as far left as he could get in the forty seconds since the AI had warned him of his impending doom.
The edge of the asteroid was in sight.
Closer. Deep space beyond.
He saw the black planet again. And then he realized: he would not escape this asteroid unscathed.
The impact made a crashing noise he had never heard before in his life, a sort of BOOM and SCREECH at the same exact time.
Metal on rock, force and momentum, creating one cataclysmic collision.
Without looking to check, he knew his right wing was severed, and that he was thrown out of his route back to Earth.
He had no way back.
It was then that he accepted the fact that he was going to die.
But the black planet attracted his attention once more.
I might as well die on a planet I’ve never seen before, he thought to himself. It’s a good thing I made sure Lisa would run the company after me.
The ship’s advanced protocol meant that the entire right side was sealed shut and unlocked from the main body. Max watched as half of his ship grew smaller and smaller until not even a speck could be seen, sent off into deep space. Still, without the right engine, there was no hope of reaching Earth anymore. The best he could do was land on the black planet and find a place to rest forever.
Yet as Max neared the surface of this mysterious dark planet, he could see tiny pinpricks of light.
No, he told himself. Impossible.
But there it was: life.“Land sighted. Landing protocol initiated.”
The Omega 183 made its final landing as a gorgeous shooting star, and unbeknownst to him, one pair of eyes watched as he fell from the sky.
Thankfully, he landed on solid ground, and as soon as he did, his buckles were unfastened.
“Oxygen detected. Air: clean. Atmosphere: safe. Signs of life: none,” the AI stated. “Exploration encouraged. Food: None. Water: One gallon.”
“Okay, okay,” he said to the ship. “I get it. Get out or die.”
Hesitantly, he opened the door of his spaceship, glad that he still had his helmet, and even more glad of its air-filtering capabilities. Some of the scents leaked in, however. There was the acrid stench of copper and something he could only identify as smoke.
As he stepped out, he let his eyes widen in awe. What seemed black to him from outer space was actually a dark gray in real life. And the reason he hadn’t seen it in his twelve days of exploring was because the ground was dotted with stars. No, not stars. Light. Every few feet or so, a circular patch of light shone from the ground, illuminating the area around him. The whole planet blended perfectly into the starry darkness of space.
His face paled when he realized where he was standing: a graveyard.
But not of people.
Buildings. Skyscrapers. Towers of concrete and steel, somehow standing after centuries of abandonment. Glass fragments lined the roads, also helping to reflect the patches of light.
Just in front of him was an exceptionally intimidating structure with a rusted sign that he could barely make out:
NATIONAL SPACE EXPLORATION AGENCY
And Max Cordova sank to his knees. Because he knew what this was. What this meant.
“All the bones have become dust,” a broken voice said from behind him.
Max leaped up with a cry of alarm, instantly seeking out a weapon to battle this creature that somehow spoke British. Wait, British?
There was an old man standing a few feet away, weathered hands wrapped around a cane fashioned out of wood and bits of steel. He was dressed in rags, but a large fur-lined cape appeared enough to stave off the wind. The man had wrinkles covering him from head to toe, but his blue eyes were sharp with knowledge.
“What?” Max asked eloquently.
“The bones. They have long since turned to dust once more,” the man replied, voice scratchy, as if he hadn’t had to use it in a really long time.
“Bones of what?” Max couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing.
“My daughter. My wife. My friends. Humans. All.”
“H-humans?” he stuttered out in confusion.
“Yes, humans. Are you not human too? Have they created synthetic bodies at last?” The old man came closer to him with each passing word.
“I’m human,” Max answered defensively. “And you?”
“Human, of course, you idiot. My, my, they do not get any smarter.” The man shook his head, rolling his eyes.
“Are you the last?” Max finally asked.
“I am whatever the universe allows me to be. But yes, I am the last one here.” Blue eyes twinkled in amusement. “You are the last, too.”
“What is this place?” Max looked around, not believing what he was seeing.
“Earth, of course, after the capitalists had funneled all the oil and diamonds and life out of the planet.” The old man spoke quieter when he said, “In the beginning, it was all right. We were extracting resources to make up for the population boom. We were recovering from the wars. But war never dies – it sleeps. And once all the resources had been used up, once Man realized that their fate was written, they made one last desperate attempt to leave. To explore.”
It took a while before Max prodded, “And?”
He thought he knew the answer already.
“And Man built a ship unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Huge. It housed over ten thousand people. But there were ten billion people on the planet. So they solved that problem: nuking the whole world. Fires raged, storms destroyed, and man killed one another.”
“We were left behind. As thousands of people entered that damned ship, billions more were left to suffer in the wake of the apocalypse.”
Something bugged Max, a question that dared to be asked. “How are you still alive, then?”
“Humans did what humans do best: survive. Small pockets of life that slowly faded because we had exploited everything this planet had to offer. Starvation and disaster swallowed the planet whole. I am the last human on planet Earth.”
The universe was silent.
“Where are you from, then?” the old man inquired, sitting down on a fallen piece of concrete.
“Earth,” Max said slowly. “I’m from Earth.”
“The future also lacks originality, then. It has been eight generations since the Exodus happened. Eight generations for your Earth to achieve what mine did in a few dozen. They used to say the previous Earth took hundreds of generations, and the one before that took thousands.”
“Yes, you fool. Previous. We are not the first Earth, nor will we be the last. Each successive Exodus has been to satiate Man’s insatiable desire for power. We are not the first. They have documented each human being and repeated the cycle over and over again with hopes that maybe it’ll be better next time. But greed consumes and war prevails. We are the end of the beginning.”
The sun would not shine on this forsaken planet, or the Earths before this one. Light cannot penetrate a darkness where despair triumphs.
It suddenly became clear to Max why the Armed Forces had dragged him into a van, why that Miranda woman had been so intent on figuring out what he knew and how. Those in power always liked keeping the cards to themselves. They couldn’t let the world know that they had destroyed one planet and voyaged to the next, leaving behind billions of souls in a war-torn world.
“So, who are you?” the old man asked eventually.
“Max Cordova. Executive Cosmonaut of the National Aerospace Exploration Agency.”
The last Man of this Earth laughed, a sharp and bitter sort of laugh.
“And who are you?” Max asked him, perturbed by the sound.
“History repeats itself again. This endless cycle of Adam and Eve to further our selfish, basic need to survive ”
“Who are you?” Max demanded, tired at last of the old man’s nonsense, and perhaps realizing that this was the fate the universe had prepared him for.
“I am you. You are me. I am Max Cordova from a different time, a different age. I am what should have been.”