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Looks like this is it.

There's a sandstorm outside right now, and with only one of the battery packs still intact, I don't really have a whole hell of a lot of hope that I'm going to make it out of this one. The few solar panels that are still functional aren't even working at a tenth of their capacity, so they're not resupplying energy anywhere near as quickly as the life support system's burning through it. Even with only me left here, the system's estimating that it'll take about three days for the power to run out, and then there'll be no air circulation. No circulation means that carbon dioxide's going to build up since the atmosphere can't reach the scrubbers, and I'll suffocate in the air that I exhale. Or, I mean, I would if I didn't have enough oxycodone in the med bay to kill a small elephant.

Let's face it, though. Even if this storm's a short one, I'm not going to last long anyway. Water's not really a problem and there's a little bit of food left, since Edmonds kept an emergency supply outside of the kitchen in case there was a crisis and we needed to wait for extraction. Only problem with that is that there's not going to be any extraction at this point. The lander was made for four people, so I can't operate it on my own. Even if I could, it would just get me up to the orbiter, which I haven't seen in weeks. I'm pretty sure that it collided with one of the Dust Bunnies up there above the atmosphere.

So, I'd like to use what little energy this place has left to send one last message. As best I can tell, no one on Earth's listening, so I've overriden the normal operating procedures for the antenna swivel and pointed it at Gliese 5b. I know we're not supposed to send signals out to planets that we think might be inhabited, but I don't see a problem with it just now. After that, I might take one last stroll around the base. Go to pet the Dust Bunny, maybe, if it doesn't seem to mind (and it never does). Then, I'll say goodnight and check out on my own time.

If anyone receives this message and actually knows how to read it, my name is Janet Dawson. I was the second human being to set foot on Mars, right after Edmonds and before Johnston, the fucking asshole who blew up our batteries. Sarah Edmonds was the head of Team One, Kyle Johnston and I were the team geologists, and Daniel Reed was our medical professional on site. Also, he was the first person to die on Mars, for what that's worth. Team Two never got their chance to land, which they would have taken three months down the road had everything gone according to plan.

The four of us had been working down here for about a month when the news came in from NASA that Neptune was gone. News like that takes a minute to process, and we weren't sure at first whether it was a joke, or if there might have been some sort of miscommunication. Nope. The outermost ice giant in our solar system was just not there anymore. It had happened a week before, but the decision was made to censor our communications until they could come up with a way to let us know. Its moons had also vanished, the day after Neptune itself. In their place was a whole lot of nothing. The JAXA/NASA orbiter at Uranus wasn't really made to look at things that distant, but they dd try to turn it to see if there was anything noticeable that the telescopes in Earth orbit and the ones on the Deep Space Station around the Moon might have missed. There wasn't.

Obviously, people got a little concerned when they realized what had happened. It was virtually impossible to keep it secret for any length of time, though. Attempts were made to see if anything had happened to Kronos, the only planet further out than Neptune, but with its orbit out in the Kuiper Belt approaching aphelion and its dark surface blending in with the space between stars, it can be hard to find even under normal circumstances. Didn't stop people from concluding that it was gone too, though.

Real panic wasn't setting in yet, but there was a kind of unnameable terror. From what we could tell once we started getting uncensored news again, suicides went up globally. There was also a serious increase in terrorist attacks from apocalyptic fundamentalists. Someone even tried to set up a bomb in the basement of the Burj Jeddah. They were stopped, but an attempt to level the world's second tallest building draws a lot of attention.

And for about another week, that was it. Neptune continued to not exist. Scientists finally found Kronos again, along with the other known large Kuiper Belt Objects, so there was some relief. Maybe this wasn't as dangerous as it seemed. But holy shit did it seem dangerous.

Then, Uranus disappeared.

With the disappearance of the second planet, we were told immediately. I guess mission control decided that hiding what happened was pointless, since we'd have to find out sooner or later. What they didn't tell us until later in the day was that, this time, there had been photographs. The satellite in orbit around the planet managed to send back three full color digital images before it lost contact with Earth, and all of them were horrifying. In all three, you could see columns of pale, blue clouds rising from the Uranus' atmosphere, then curling into spirals. It looked like there were hundreds of those, kind of like waterfalls but in reverse. The last photo returned was taken close to one, with the end of its spiral silhouetted against the darkness of space. Toward the end, the pale blue turned to tan, and at the end of the column, there was an almost imperceptibly small dot. Like a grain of sand.

Martial law was declared in pretty much every country that could enforce it. This time, the reaction wasn't unspoken fear, but instead was raw terror. Whatever was out there, it was eating worlds, and it was on its way toward the Earth. States without the capability relied on UN or regional peacekeepers, but that really wasn't enough. The result was civil war. Not war with any real goal, just the reaction of people trapped with nowhere to run.

Where the police and military could stop the riots before they got that bad, they used first batons, then tear gas and bean bag shotguns. Then, finally, machine gun fire. Death tolls globally escalated into the thousands.

We were offered the option of going back to the Earth. It was late evening here in the Eridania lake bed, and we sat around the aluminum table in the dining room, discussing the pros and cons of heading up to the orbiting command module and then leaving for home. Families, friends, all those people we had left behind... but we all knew the unfortunate truth, and Edmonds was the first person to voice it. If whatever this was got from Neptune to Uranus in two weeks, then leaving the surface just meant that we would die floating through the empty sky. Any chance of returning to our loved ones was already gone.

That wasn't our stated reason, of course. We said that we wanted to continue the mission, to keep hope alive. And who knew, maybe Uranus would be the last planet they consumed.

It wasn't.

The dreams started, too, on the day when they ate Saturn, before we realized what had happened. Enormous voids opened up in our minds and filled themselves with green and black fractal patterns. Time didn't move as it should have. The immense scale of both time and space in that place was disconcerting, and the first night, it felt like I spent years asleep.

I remember waking up groggy and still uneasy, getting some cheap knock-off coffee from the kitchen, and moving to the main room to sit down and read any messages that might have come in on my tablet. Daniel walked in, told me that I looked like shit, and then asked with a note of concern whether I had any unusual dreams. I thought at first that he was just worried about my mental state because, yeah, I looked pretty much like shit. Then, it dawned on me. The look on his pale, tired face was something else entirely.

After we realized that we had all had the same dream, we got into the stimulant stash and started popping modafinil like candy.

We were wired up like Christmas lights in hell by the time we got a call to let us know what had happened to Saturn. It took the things a little over an hour to eat Saturn, and this time, it was visible through near real time streaming thanks to the powerful telescopes at the Deep Space Station. Its rings were gone too quickly to see what happened to them, but the world itself died slowly. The columns curled out from the planet, first smooth like the ones photographed at Uranus, then developing a stranger texture as material from the depths of the gas giant started to dredge up. Freed from the pressure in the world's depths, they exploded outward, then collapsed in again as they turned from their own strange colors back to something almost like the long-vanished outer atmosphere.

In orbit around Saturn, the ESA's Herschell Probe and NASA's own SATURNEXT also returned images before dying. SATURNEXT didn't really get anything better than the photos from the Uranus orbiter, but its eccentric orbit gave it nearly ten minutes of time to see what was going on. Herschell, on the other hand, returned only one photo, but it was worth a thousand from a greater distance.

At the end of a long, curving tendril of planetary material was the first Dust Bunny that any human being ever saw close up. It really did look kind of like a rabbit made of sand, hence the name (given to them by yours truly, after the shit hit the fan and I was alone to call them whatever the hell I wanted). Of course, it was really more of a blob, but it had two long, floppy "ears", noticeable even in the grainy, pixelated image. At the time, we weren't sure whether those were just a brief shape that the object took on, although I can now assure you that they're permanent. In person, it's actually kind of cute. Well, kind of like someone tried to make a Shoggoth look cute, but you take what you can get. They settle down when they're on a planet, but in orbit, they just flop around as the bunny moves.

I... uh, I might have started mixing the modafinil and some other stimulants with the painkillers I mentioned earlier. Don't judge me.

After those images came back, martial law pretty much went to shit. People started to desert from the military in droves, just wanting to see their families, and chaos took over. By that point, I'm pretty sure that people back home were having the dreams, too. It's hard to say with the attempts at media censorship, but between the news anchors trying to fake optimism while still saying goodbye, there were a few hints. A news anchor who had to be escorted off set because he couldn't stop crying. A rioter with a revolver, wearing a hooded sweater and firing up into the sky before he turned it on himself and screamed that they would never take him. A brief image of a woman in a crowd who looked like she fell asleep on her feet for a moment, then woke up with an expression that I had never seen before in my life.

It took maybe two days for society to begin to collapse. We all called home that night to leave a message for our loved ones because of an expected communications shut down, except for me. I didn't really have anyone to talk to. An ex-husband, yes, but no one else since my family died years ago when Megatyphoon Dim hit their vacation home in Okinawa, and I made the executive decision not to let what was almost certainly going to be one of my last few days go to waste contacting that ass hat. It took a while for it to sink in that my life was now probably going to be measured in days or weeks at the most. That the life of the entire human race wouldn't go on for much longer.

Even with stimulants, you can't stay awake forever, and as soon as the communications cut off (almost immediately after Daniel sent his last message to his wife and daughter in Tallahassee, now that I think about it), we all went back to bed. Somehow, I think we knew that everything would change after that, and that maybe we'd be ready for it if we experienced it together instead of alone when we could no longer avoid the inevitable. We weren't so lucky. The dreams did come back, except now, they felt even longer. Even more hopeless and lonely. Being together in that green and black darkness is impossible.

It took us all about two hours to wake up from our dreams, but I was honestly confused about where I was. My memories were foggy, like the moment when I closed my eyes had happened a decade or more ago. None of us spoke about it. Really, we didn't speak much to each other at all when we woke at roughly the same time. I did the only thing that I knew to do. I went to the damned lab, and I stared at rocks for hours like I was still working even though all communication had been severed not long before. The lack of sleep combined with the potent pharmaceuticals helped with that.

The sun was going down and the sky was stained pale blue when I heard Johnston start screaming. He was in the main room, howling in terror and anger. For a while, I thought about just staying in the lab, but then it hit me that helping someone in obvious distress was just the humane thing to do. Still, I didn't exactly run to see what was up, because I was sure that it was going to be bad.

My intuition wasn't off. It was really fucking terrible.

There was a hell of a lot of blood. That was the first thing that I noticed. The couch was covered with it and the green and yellow carpet was stained red. Johnston was busy ripping the television off of the wall when I first turned the corner, but it only took him a second to get it down, and then he picked his kitchen knife back up off of the floor. There wasn't really a lot of clothing left on him at that point. Just his pants, and the tattered remains of his shirt. Under that shirt, there really wasn't a lot of skin left, either.

Honestly, I can't know what he saw. I think he drifted off to sleep on the couch and, if he did at that point, who knows what he went through. It's hard not to judge him after everything, but the look on his face was just raw terror. His eyes were huge, his mouth hanging open, his cheeks stained with both his own blood and the tracks of tears.

"They did it," he said, "Fucking, they got Jupiter. I watched them do it. I watched them eat it. Can you imagine, can you just imagine being in one of those columns? Damn it, I saw it. Katy, I saw it. The ridges of clouds just... they just... Katy, holy fuck... Katy..."

Johnston's daughter was named Katy, I remember that. She was about my age, even though he didn't look old enough to have a daughter who was nearly in middle age herself.

"Johnston, there's no way you could know that," I told him, a desperate lie, "There's no news coming in. We watched the line cut off together. How would you know that what you just said was true?"

"Katy," he said, again and again, "Katy, Katy, Katy, oh my god. They're not even going to kill us, Katy. It's only going to take a little while now and they're going to be here in Long Beach, and they're going to take us up. It's hell in there."

I think that I made a move forward, my arms outstretched. I'm not sure if I actually took a step, though. That kitchen knife, dulled nearly black with Johnston's blood, moved up to his neck. If nothing had happened, I'm pretty sure he would have just cut through.

Unfortunately for everyone, Daniel chose that moment to arrive from the opposite end of the base, coming out of the corridor and into the main room right beside him. He had time to say something. Maybe, "What the hell?"

Johnston stabbed through Daniel's chest in one fast move, his knife going through the doctor's sternum. The two were locked together for an instant that lasted forever, almost like a hug. Someone was screaming, but it wasn't either of them. It had to be me, but I don't feel like I was really there at that moment. The two crumpled to the floor, and I remember sobbing. That noise, I know, wasn't coming from me. Almost definitely, it was Johnston. Daniel was already unconscious, the precious fluid that kept his body moving was leaking onto the floor in a puddle.

Edmonds came in from the same direction as Daniel, running into the room. She gave a confused, horrified glance around before Johnston shoved her out of the way and ran down the hall. He was screaming again now, racing faster than someone in his physical state had any right to go, trailing blood and flesh like bread crumbs.

Neither of us was really sure what to do. We stared in horror down the hallway as he ran toward the storage rooms, maintenance, and the airlock. Then Edmonds broke the silence, "We need the gun."

Firing a weapon in a sealed tube in near vacuum is always a risky prospect, but being unarmed is also horrifying. The idea of someone completely losing it on a two year, eight person mission to Mars had been discussed, and eventually it was decided that a specially designed compressed air firearm, deliberately set up to kill or incapacitate a human but to be too weak to easily puncture through the entire outer shell of the facility was pretty much a necessity in case all other means failed or the person managed to arm him or herself after their breakdown. There was no guarantee that it would kill or that it absolutely wouldn't punch a hole, but it would definitely stop someone who needed to be stopped. Now, Edmonds and I were running down the hallway to the right of the main room, toward the dormitory and the locked box under the captain's bunk where she kept the pistol.

We got to her private room, she pulled the small grey metal case out, and started fumbling with her key ring. The whole time I stood at the door, looking back through the fifteen feet between where we were and the main room in case Johnston decided to wheel around and come back. She had the box open, had pulled the pistol and ammunition out from their egg crate packaging, and was putting the bullets into the chamber when we heard the explosion and the lights went out.

The Mars base is damned small. It only took Johnston a few minutes to get to the maintenance room, about the same time that it took us to get to the captain's quarters. There were a few controls in place to keep someone from accidentally damaging the main batteries, those enormous black rectangles lined up in a deep closet off from the maintenance room. What Johnston did wasn't accidental.

I can't really tell you much about the chemistry of the batteries here, but I assume that they contained something that didn't play nice with oxygen. I also can't tell you what Johnston saw when he closed his eyes in the main room, but whatever it was, he couldn't get it out of his head until he punched a hole in one of those electrical monoliths with something (not the knife, it was still in the main room, lodged in Daniel's chest). The maintenance room was wiped out entirely by the blast. It was a minor miracle that the backup battery in the lander, located off to the left of the main room and only around thirty feet away from maintenance, survived. It didn't even have to kick off to seal maintenance off from the rest of the base, because the emergency hatches in the base have their own backup supply, but we wouldn't have been able to leave the dormitory if it hadn't. All of the safety seals had locked tight in a fraction of a second, and they needed that power supply to function.

As soon as the shock wore off, and as soon as the red emergency lights kicked on so that we weren't relying entirely on light streaming in through the narrow windows, Edmonds finished loading the gun. She looked at me and asked, "Do you think that's what it sounded like?"

I nodded. There really wasn't a lot else that it could have been.

We still took the gun with us on our way toward maintenance. The sealed hallway leading to the main room required an approval code to open, and it took us more than a minute to figure it out through trial and error, inputting all of the codes that we never expected to use. Then, the door that actually opened into the main room needed the same. All of them required the same code, though. This time, it just took long enough for Edmonds to enter the password with her free hand shaking violently.

The main room looked like something out of a horror movie. The television sat propped up against the loveseat, its screen broken. The adjacent couch was ripped to shreds. The sheer volume of blood was worse than I had remembered, and it was hard to tell in the harsh red light where the blood ended and the normal color of the carpet began. I walked over to Daniel's body and checked briefly for a pulse, the thought occurring to me that we should have done that before running to get the gun. Oh, well. There wasn't one, and there had been no reason to think that there would have been only a few minutes earlier. A few minutes that felt like an eternity, but still only a few minutes.

The hatch leading to the maintenance corridor was firmly closed, and the readout on its panel showed that the atmosphere on the other side was dangerously thin. It would be about two hours before we would be able to go outside and check to make sure of what we already knew, and when we did, we found that the maintenance room was pretty much gone. There were pieces left from Johnston's body, and they stood out harshly in the darkness of the Martian night, silhouetted by our circles of artificial light. High above, where Jupiter should have been, there was only the yawning blackness of the Milky Way abyss. We weren't able to bury Daniel, but we took him out there onto the surface, wrapped in a funeral shroud made from a bedsheet. It was all that we could do.

In the eternal silence and cold of the dead world we had come to explore, Edmonds told me goodbye. I didn't have time to react before she took off her helmet and rapidly fell to the ground. I could probably have taken her back into the base, could probably have kept her alive. I didn't, because there was no point. Later on, I brought a shroud out for her, too, along with the useless gun. Edmonds hadn't trusted it to end her life if she fired it, and neither did I. More likely, it would just break bones and cause pain if someone tried to swallow it.

The orbiter did a flyover of the base only once every few days. On its next pass, I made contact using the local antenna. Apparently, they'd also had a catastrophe. Team Two was composed of Margaret Greene, Tommy Whitefield, Brandon Densmoor, and Tracey Lee when we set out from Earth. Now, Margaret Greene was gone. She had died in her sleep, the victim of a heart attack. The others had given her a similar funeral to the one we had given Daniel, evacuating her body through the airlock. The whole process had been a mess, with her corpse getting snagged on the rim of the hatch on her way out. An EVA had to be carried out to free her body and let it drift, revealing that her lower arm had been nearly severed by the sharp metal of the hatch. That last jar sent it free, and she went into orbit around Mars in two pieces.

None of the others spoke openly about joining her outside of the ship, but it was pretty obvious what was coming. We talked for awhile. Had the orbiter's stronger antenna picked up any signals from Earth? Yes, but nothing strong or directed. Nothing that could really be useful. A few words in Arabic, maybe, unintelligible to the crew and broken up by radio static. Had they seen whether Jupiter might still somehow be there? No. It was gone.

The ship passed over the horizon, and then forever, it was gone.

Eventually, I fell asleep at the pile of communications equipment in the dormitory. In that red-tinged darkness, I dreamed about my childhood in Detroit. About the sunrise over the lake, about long winters with heavy snow, and about hot chocolate with my mother. Warm drinks from a ceramic mug, and tiny little marshmallows. My first dog, her life and her death all too soon. About something that wasn't a dog and wasn't a cat, but that looked a little like both. Something that looked at me with an expression that wasn't even close to human, from a face nearly a foot long and far too large for its small frame, with black pits instead of eyes, but that was still somehow pitiable and apologetic. It had five tails, ending with vast fans of digits, and they all hung down to the ground. The thing slid toward me like something somewhere between a cat and a weasel, and rubbed against my legs in a way that was distinctly feline. Not purring, but making a rapid clicking sound. A sound I could understand, that I knew was coming across vast gulfs not only of space but of time, from something that had been dead for years when the dinosaurs first walked the Earth, born in the light of a sun that had burnt out before ours began to shine. It was saying that things were never meant to end this way for us. That mistakes had been made. That it and the others of its kind (if they really were others in the proper sense; this creature seemed to be only a part of a vast whole) were sorry.

I'm not sure how long I slept. I could have checked, but if it's not obvious, I've completely lost track of time and so that wouldn't have been very useful. Maybe more than a day. What woke me, though, was more important. Outside, something thudded to the ground. I thought that maybe it was the lander, toppled over somehow from its vertical position. It took only a minute and a quick glance out the high window above the communications equipment to see how wrong I was.

There's no way to know why the enormous thing outside of the base decided to stop here. I can't even begin to guess what it came here for. Like an amoeba made of dirt, with rabbit ears dangling down its side, it sat there pulsating. In the distance, I could see others falling from the sky like a strange hail storm. From its base, I watched roots extend out from the Dust Bunny. They burrowed into the red dirt, and the thing began to make a rapid clicking noise. Similar to the animal that had visited my dream, but at a radically different pitch.

I've made a few trips out to see it, carefully bypassing where Daniel and Edmonds lay still on the Martian ground. Whatever it and its brethren are, they stopped here on Mars. I can't say whether more went on to land on Earth, but at night, I can still see the Earth and its Moon. Neither is broadcasting now. Phobos and Deimos are still up there, and looking at them through the telescope in the lab, I can see tiny brown dots on both. In the dark, the blobs glow faintly blue, both here and on the nightside of the moons.

There's almost no chance that I'm the last human being left, but I doubt that there's any chance that humanity will bounce back from this. With the outer planets gone, it's hard to say what exactly is going to happen in the future, but I do know that I won't be alive to see it. No one is coming here for me. I'm alone, and I'm going to die.

So, consider this a warning and a goodbye. If this happens to you, maybe you'll fare better. And if not, who knows. I have a feeling now that there's a sort of life after death, even if it isn't the kind that we used to expect. Maybe I'll see you on the other side.



Written by MadotsukiInTheNexus
Content is available under CC BY-SA