Mirage

Photo by Vlada Stark

By Vlada Stark

The light of the flames burns so far away on the horizon. Blue transforms into red, red transforms into yellow, and the yellow becomes grey smoke that is blown away by the soft wind. In between the smoldering metal and the shocks of electricity are the ashes of my teammates. They all had souls, lives, and memories. Now they are reduced to burning embers that are mixed in with the sandy breeze. 

I’m the only one left.

The almighty Sun above me penetrates my protective suit with its deadly rays, burning patches of my already sore red skin. I have no water left to perspire, so my body cooks from the inside. The crescendoing wind picks up the radioactive loose sand, passing it through my cheap mask and into the pain of my dry throat. The joints and muscles in my body ache with the dull pain of exhaustion. The toxic desert lasts for miles, and everything is hit with the deadly flares of the sun that kill everything slowly. I can feel it killing me at a torturous leisurely pace with every minute I lay here. I don’t know how much time has passed or how much distance I traveled when I naively tried to find help. The hellscape never changes, and my perception is blurred by the heat.

A part of me feels I was set up to die. The mission itself was built on negligence. An empty display only meant to appease the fervent religious sects growing amongst the poor. The return to Earth, or as they like to say “the conception of life,” is their sacred mission. So, a small team of disposable pawns was sent off to this wasteland to find any remains of life. Perhaps, the shuttle was bound to crash and ignite into deadly flames. A tragedy to end any further prospects of returning. I wish I would have died with them. It would have been only a few moments of pain, then an eternity of peace. Death is sadistically patient with me. Every moment I am on the brink of peace, I am suddenly brought back to this insufferable edge of living.

“The conception of life.” How ironic. As if anything could survive this corpse planet plagued with a thousand years of nuclear radiation. Greed created this graveyard, and so many more planets will succumb to humanity’s insatiable hunger. 

“He-Help! I need hel-lp.” A crumpled static voice hits my in-ear transmitter. Someone’s alive… 

“Pleas-se, is any-yone there? I-I need hel-lp.” Someone’s alive. On the edge of death, but alive. I frantically look to my crushed navigation device, in between the cracked glass and dead pixels their location is displayed as two miles north.

I rush to contact them. “Please stay where you are, I’ve located you. I’ll come.” My dry throat suffers with each sound and my cracked lips begin to bleed.  “Can you hear me?” There isn’t an answer. The transmitter’s echoing beeping alerts a lost signal. The connection must have severed. 

The connection must have severed.

Feeling the weight of two bodies, I stand from my deathbed. My aching joints crack, and my tired muscles tremble from the sudden pressure. Pain courses through me with each and every step I take. Whoever is left must be in worse pain than I am. I don’t want them to die alone in agony. I also don’t want to die alone. I need to meet them. So, I endure.

As I stumble on the dried ocean bed, the heat from the sun vibrates the reality around me. Its dance creates a mirage of water on the horizon, as if Earth was filled with it again. My memories of childhood reappear in my mind, as they seem to do on the brink of death. I remember learning that water covered almost all of Earth and that some creatures even breathed the water. I’ve never believed it, it seems impossible. How could something live in water? I’ve never seen anything living other than a human, though there were plenty of hypothetical illustrations of the creatures. 

My imagination is blank when it comes to what Earth could have been. I’ve lived in the cold metal cage satellite city that orbits Saturn’s ice moon, Enceladus, to mine water. Even then, I have never seen so much water that I could live in it. Our mission captain, who was of an upper class, talked about moving in water when we were traveling. He said “swimming” in water felt refreshing and totally different from air. Now that all I can feel is the dry heat, I wish I could have experienced it at least once.

There’s no point in thinking about what could have been. I’ll never know, I’ll die here anyway. Maybe I’m doing this for selfish reasons, as a part of me doesn’t want to die alone in this blight of disease and toxicity. I just want to feel human comfort. Maybe the other person desires the same. So I have to get to them. I have to be there. I can’t keep distracting myself. I need to look for them.

Time and reality begin to blur increasingly into a spiral of confusion and distress. There is no change in color and scenery. It seems as if time has stopped and I’m in the same place over and over again. It’s a nightmare-like feeling. The heat dances in an increasing frenzy as its waves disturb the air. The horizon sea becomes more and more appetizing as I consume the dust-filled wind. 

Every moment, reality is distanced from me.

Panic begins to consume me as the sun changes its trajectory for its nightly rest. I should have passed 2 miles by now. I should have. Maybe I’m walking in the wrong direction, there are no landmarks to be sure. Humanity’s violent assault against itself has made Earth’s surface completely flat. Maybe I passed them when I was deep into my thoughts. Maybe they’re already gone and eroded by the wind. Maybe they walked away to find me. Maybe-

Drowned by the blue horizon, a figure reveals itself. A figure of a body. The figure of a person. It lays there, and I’m so far yet so close to affection. A newfound strength in me appears. All the agony and despair I felt before disappears at the sight of life.

“Can you hear me?” I speak into the transmitter. No answer.

 “Are you alive?” Nothing. 

“Are you ok?” Even with the silent void, my limping legs still attempt to run. They run and run and run as if they were separate from my mind. My breath becomes even heavier, straining my sore throat with each gasp. The heat quickens, distorting everything around me into violent paint strokes of an abnormal reality. I suffer and suffer trying to get nearer. The distant hills of dust begin to engulf the sun. 

Still, the silent body remains there at the horizon with the imaginary water.

Despair overflows my body with the realization.

It wasn’t a person; it was only the mirage of life. An imitation of my desires, just like the water. The strong withdrawal of adrenaline leaves me collapsed on the ground. I’m stuck in this hell with no hope of a savior. I take off my helmet and strip the shreds of my remaining suit in failure. The hot sand touches my bare body, burning it. There is no will left in me to care.

I stare at the infinite night sky, the only thing untouched by human greed. It’s my only hope left. There will always be a new frontier that will remain pure and whole that humanity can never defile. Light flashes in and out from the stars as if they are portals of death tempting me to peace.

In between the illuminations, a red fiery glare comes closer and closer.”Mission 431, I received your distress signal.” The message from a shuttle relays in my ear, but I know it’s just another trick of my exhausted mind. “Mission 431, is anyone alive?”

There is no point in answering.

My eyelids become heavy as they fall onto my cheeks. My breathing slows. The pure lights of the stars consume me.

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