Author: David Barber

A sudden rash of volcanoes, spewing poisonous smoke and ash; any closer and rock lofted by the eruptions would be raining from the clouds.

So we fled underground, a move not without risk. Sometimes with eruptions come more quakes and roof-falls, but we have learned that those who hide are never survived by the ones who stay in the open.

The slowest of us, the aged and the injured, were the last to limp into the caves. I turned to take in the baleful red glow to the south. Like the end of the world; though we already knew what the end of the world looked like.

It would be a cold and hungry time for we old ones.

The Chief’s men came to do the count, and one stood over the old woman we called the Nurse, huddled in a corner like a heap of rags.

The man called for help with her, though she must be light as a bird. It wasn’t that he couldn’t drag her on his own, but he wanted to share the guilt.

I stepped forward. “She’s not dead.”

“Soon will be. Who’ll take her outside?”

“I will. When the time comes.”

He looked dubious, then shrugged big shoulders. Breeders and Hunters got fed when food was scarce.

Later, they sent someone to remember the Nurse’s words, preserving the past, the way we hold onto knowledge that was common once but is precious now. Our future depends on knowing more than our rivals.

The girl they sent was not a Survivor – what we old ones call ourselves – but from the generations after. She shrugged when I asked her age. Thirteen, fourteen? Hard to guess, though her hips were still too narrow for childbirth.

She had a spiral tattoo on her brow and the top joint of the little finger on her left hand was missing. These were marks of affiliation, of ownership perhaps. The young have secret lives.

Together, the girl and I roused the Nurse with water, and some scraps I had kept back for harder times.

Perhaps the girl expected to hear secret tricks of healing, but the Nurse had already passed on what she could.

“Out of nowhere,” she mumbled. “Like a thing bobbing up from underwater. Big as the moon.”

She clutched at the girl, searching her face for comprehension. Still trying to make sense of what befell us after all this time.

It had surfaced with a surge and suck of gravity that made the Earth flex in torment. It was fleeing the wavefront of some unspecified catastrophe, but sniffing a waterworld like ours, and with true sentience in the cosmos so precious, it snatched at the passing chance of rescue.

Days later, with the saved safe inside the belly of the behemoth, it vanished in a splash of physics that blew every lightbulb on the planet. Whether it was some sort of living starship, or a vast leviathan of the interstellar deeps we never knew.

The girl shot me a bitter glance. This was the creation myth of her world.

“No room for everybody, so some was saved and some was left. That what she say?”

Perhaps anger and resentment would nourish them through hard lives. When my time comes, I shall not add to their burden with the truth.

We scientists didn’t understand at first, as quakes and tsunamis grew increasingly violent, as we scanned the heavens for a catastrophe that seemed already here. It was a while before we realised all the whales were gone.