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The Afterlife
November 18, 2002

      In the year 2052, two years following the final showdown between the Allied and Axis powers that wiped out every living being on planet Earth, a NASA space shuttle that had gone to Mars to search for signs of life returned home and landed in the desert that was once Orlando. After some trouble, the three astronauts, one male and two female, still in their space suits, stepped out of the ship and onto the barren land. They looked around in astonishment, as though still on Mars. Dr. Zarkoff, one of the females and psychiatrist, leaned over and picked up a piece of rubble that was buried beneath a pile of black sand.

      "They destroyed it," she conceded. "They destroyed it."

      "Figured they would eventually. How do you think it happened?" asked Dr. Black, sole male astronaut and physicist. He walked over to a patch of once fertile palm trees and admired the lackluster appearance of the plot. "Marvelous what they've done to the place. Almost reminds me of when I was a kid and used to look up my chimney around Christmas time."

      "Large scale nuclear war followed by years of post-nuclear warfare. Might even be some groups left fighting for land, but the forecast looks grim. Don't take your helmets off, you'll leave yourself open to radiation. We need to stay alive for as long as we possibly can." Dr. Zarkoff made sure her helmet was on securely then rubbed down the glass dome with her hand. "We might be the only ones left."

      The three could barely move around to investigate their surroundings. Their muscles had atrophied slightly despite daily exercises onboard the shuttle while in space and on Mars, and they needed rest. They re-boarded the shuttle and slept for the remainder of the day.

      The next morning, the sunlight was bleak and dull as mists of black smoke and tar clouded the Earth's atmosphere. The Earth, now without polar ice caps, had heated up dramatically, adding another twenty degrees to the average temperature for that time of year. Dr. Black arose from his quarters on the shuttle and began to perform his stretching routine. First he stretched his leg muscles, then his biceps, his triceps, and finally his pectoral muscles. He stepped on the treadmill and turned it on. Velocity four, slight incline. He began walking and also simultaneously running circles in his mind. Was there any other life was left on Earth, and if so, where could they be found? What in the world could he do now that he might very possibly be the last man left? Why had the human race been so careless? Just back from a long mission to Mars, and now this. His quiet conversation with himself ended when Dr. Lyman, the younger female astronaut and 35 year old astrophysicist, walked into the small exercise room and sat down on a rowing machine beside Dr. Black's treadmill. "Do you have to sit next to me? You're interrupting my meditations."

      Dr. Lyman completely ignored the obnoxious comment. "So they've completely fucked this place up. Ya know, it kind of reminds me of Mars, in a homely kind of way," she joked.

      "No kidding. So what the hell are we gonna do? Do you think anybody is still alive?"

      "I really don't think so. You heard what Evelia said, "forecast doesn't look so good,"." She made her voice an octave deeper as she imitated her captain's rigid and metaphoric way of interpreting almost any given situation. "Well, I never thought it would come to this, but you know what this means."

      "What? What does her highness think this means?"

      "Well. You, and me, and Evelia...we're going to have to re-populate the Earth."

      "Whoa whoa, slow down, let's not jump to so many conclusions at once. We don't even know for sure if everybody is dead or if some people are still alive."

      "Noah! Have you looked outside? Have you walked around yet? That's all I've been doing all morning and the entire place is covered in soot, sand, rubble and dust. The temperature has risen, the water level of the ocean has dropped, and the goddamn place is as quiet as a library. You could hear a pin drop. And you're going to sit here and tell me that there could be some people left?" Dr. Lyman could barely keep herself together. "What is there left for us to do Noah? What?"

      "We haven't done thorough searches for any signs of life yet. There could be life still, right under our noses, and we wouldn't even know about it. People could be beneath the rubble with a life left to give. You can't suddenly cancel out all of these possibilities for one of your insecure dreams. I won't have it." He increased the speed of the treadmill to velocity six and began fast-walking.

      "Noah, come on! You knew that this would happen right after we left. You knew what had been going on between Russia and the States. That the CIA had lost two spy planes over Russia in just the past year and that trouble was boiling up. Do you really think anything-"

      Noah interjected as he stopped the treadmill. "Still fighting, huh? Call me optimistic, but yeah, I think there's hope left. I think you're just afraid. I think you want to be the next Eve. Have you lost your senses? Do you even think that's possible? You're already 35 and Evelia, Evelia is 45! How are we supposed to plant the seeds of reconstruction with such little time, help, materials..." He let out a sigh, "I just don't think it's possible." He walked back into his tiny sleeping quarters, put his space suit back on, and walked out of the shuttle. Dr. Lyman was left to herself inside the exercise room.

      Since they landed on Mars, the bland disposition that each of three astronauts kept locked inside their chests hindered any sort of overall progress. Daily stretching routines and atmosphere checks, shuttle repairs and heated arguments turned their eagerness into a subtle frustration and left them questioning why they had volunteered to go on the mission in the first place. Crawling now in the darkness of her solitary sleeping quarters, Dr. Lyman recalled the tragedy of having lost one of their crew-mates while he was outside on the shuttle attending to a problem with one of the circuits that helped to power the electronics in the exercise room. He had lost his balance while reaching for a screwdriver that he placed inside one of the pockets of his space suit and slipped off the shuttle and into the vast and endless space pocket of the universe. She wished this was all a dream; that she'd soon enough wake up to her warm bed back home in New Orleans, Louisiana to the smell of pancakes and the sight of her mother walking into her room with a tall glass of orange juice placed atop a porcelain tray; that it would all wash away like the puddles of mud she had once gotten on her favorite skirt when she was only seventeen.

      Dr. Black spent the entire rest of his day outside, under the powerful rays of the sun that could barely break through the thick clouds of fog and smoke that hovered in the Earth's atmosphere. He walked for miles on end but found only the same black sand, soot, and piles of rubble that his space shuttle had landed in the previous day. Not a sign of life anywhere. His hopes were diminishing and soon enough he would face the reality of the matter: there was in fact no life left on Earth. His head was spinning with thoughts of doom. Images of cities being uprooted into clouds of smoke by the press of a single button above lit up inside his mind. He eventually ran himself in enough circles and got to the end of the maze where he reasoned that the last humans had killed each other in a desperate battle for dominance, power and control. Why else? After coming across the buried remains of some kind of automobile and finding nothing inside, he sat down atop a tall pile of rubble and started heaving tiny bits and pieces of decayed rock and machinery as far as he could. He was tempted to scream, but remembered the words of Dr. Zarkoff telling him and Dr. Lyman to never take their helmets off no matter what the circumstance. "We need to stay alive for as long as we possibly can." The words burned inside him like bleach on one's skin and he knew that she was right; he just hated having to follow with and agree to her commands. But he also knew that the radiation would catch up with them eventually and figured that their lives would accumulate to absolutely nothing anyway. He also didn't want to admit to Dr. Lyman's assumptions being correct. Panicked, confused, helpless and disavowed, Dr. Black couldn't find any way to hide from the truth that was haunting him.

      Back at the space shuttle, Dr. Zarkoff had been talking with Dr. Lyman about possible courses of action to take. "Laura. I don't know what to tell you. This story is looking quite grim to me. We have two options. We can get back on the space shuttle and search other galaxies for signs of life, but there's no telling if we'll ever make it or find any other signs of life."

      "And the other option?"

      "Procreation. Pure and simple procreation. But we can't do it on our own, we have to get Noah to agree and that'll probably be close to impossible."

      "I'm telling you, Noah wouldn't believe me, but I'm sure the Russians and Americans got into some kind of dispute and a war broke out that eventually led to one side using nukes. I'm sure that after they fired one nuke, the other side sent one of theirs, and then both sides just kept sending nukes back and forth," said Dr. Lyman, re-directing the conversation as she took note of Dr. Black walking towards them a few hundred yards off.

      "I'm sure it wasn't quite like that." A tired Dr. Black walked towards his two companions with the same agonizing look he had worn since the shuttle had first landed. "Find anything out there?"

      "What do you think?"

      "Told ya so," said a proud Dr. Lyman.

      "So are we going to play games 'cause I don't need to listen to your banter right now."

      Dr. Zarkoff sounded serious and affirming in her proposition to Dr. Black. "Noah, imagine for a second that we're the only ones left on this planet. We can help save humanity if we only try. Or...or, we can press our luck and try to find other signs of life elsewhere. Personally, I'm sold on the first option but it's all up to you and what you want to do because we can't procreate without you."

      Dr. Lyman also had to get in some words of her own. "Why can't you just let go of your hope that there's still life left and understand the plain and simple fact that if we don't procreate, the human race will forever be abolished? And it'll all be your fault!"

      "My fault? Are you kidding me? I'm not the one who destroyed the damn world with nukes! My fault? I'm not the one who created the world in the first place. My fault? Please Laura, use your head for once."

      "Look Noah," interrupted Dr. Zarkoff. "This isn't a time for being ethical or picky about your sexual partners, nor is this a time for prying into petty issues. This is a time for owning up to responsibility and taking action, doing what's best for our species. Do you understand?" The tension between the three had risen drastically since Dr. Black had returned from his walk and was now reaching a point of no return. It was as if the radiation had gotten into their heads and detonated their emotions, except for Dr. Zarkoff who always remained calm despite a harsh climate.

      Dr. Black stood silent for a moment. Thoughts of his former wife and family, of his life accomplishments and his dreams of being a well-known scientist of his time rushed into his worried mind and filled him with a sense of reason. It felt to him as if he had just flowed downstream a river of denial and had met the waterfall at the end. "I need some time."

      "Fine. Let us know your decision as soon as possible." Dr. Black retired into the space shuttle and fell fast asleep. Still outside, Dr. Lyman couldn't understand what had been bothering Dr. Black. She too disliked Dr. Zarkoff's arrogant and direct approaches to any cloudy situation but realized that the time had come for rational thinking. What other options were there really? She massaged her right calf muscle, resting her chin on her knee. Why hadn't she opted to do something else in school like English or Psychology? Thoughts from the past came racing back and sat themselves upon a couch in her conscious mind that Dr. Lyman picked at patiently. Why wouldn't Dr. Black want to re-populate the Earth? Was she just not good enough? Confused and tired, Dr. Lyman walked into the space shuttle and retired for the night.

      Inside her sleeping quarters, Dr. Zarkoff was seated at her desk with a small night lamp turned on, looking over some notes she had written down before the shuttle had landed on Mars. "07.29.44. Mission going well. Lost Dr. Pilate yesterday while he was out repairing a circuit but all else is well. Dr. Black and Dr. Lyman didn't take the tragedy too well and have been mourning over his loss for the past two days. As for me, I am convinced that we will find life on Mars and patiently await the day of our arrival there." Eight years ago. She noted how her attitude had changed so much, from one of optimism and courage to one of frustration and annoyance, and wondered why her and her crewmates were having difficulties coming to decisions such as the one at hand. Someone always disagreed and more likely than not, it was always Dr. Black. Dr. Zarkoff believed him to be manic depressive, or to have developed it over the course of their mission at least.

      Dr. Zarkoff's countenance ever since leaving Mars had changed much. After discovering that there were no signs of life on the planet, Dr. Zarkoff had taken on a more apathetic outlook on things. On board the shuttle returning to Earth, she tended to avoid engaging in conversations with either of her crew-mates. She stopped doing her daily exercises and withdrew into her sleeping quarters quite often to be alone. For a while, both Dr. Black and Dr. Lyman thought she was going to commit suicide. When either of them confronted her, asking if she was alright, Dr. Zarkoff would just nod her head and walk away like a child. She didn't want to be bothered. Eventually she grew out of that state and little by little, came to grips with reality and returned to her focused and goal-oriented self.

      She skimmed through some more of her notes and came upon one she wrote after her bout with depression, as she came to label it, had ended. "6.10.50. Another day of meandering around the spaceship, floating in zero gravity. I hope Arthur is doing well in heaven. I almost now regret not mourning with the others over his death. We're almost back home. I'm going to miss looking out the window and seeing nothing but the planets, stars and vast endless universe. But I can't wait to be home."

      Dr. Black stepped out of the space shuttle the following morning to find Dr. Zarkoff sitting next to a campfire reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. "Good book."

      "Good morning. Sleep well?"

      "Not really. Too much on my mind."

      "Yeah I know that feeling."

      "Why are you outside reading instead of inside?" Dr. Black had thought it strange that Dr. Zarkoff would want to read with her helmet and space suit on, sweating up a storm.

      "I can't stand being crammed inside that nauseating space shuttle anymore. Besides, this environment is more conducive to learning. So have you come to a decision yet?"

      "I didn't think it would come to this, but I'm not going to help this race. You see what kind of destruction man does to himself. You see the kind of twisted hunger that drives him. And it'll just happen all over again. Why bother? Man is corrupt. It's in his nature to be so. We're like a disease that spreads from one area to another, divides and conquers, sucks up resources and moves on to the next place. It's always a battle for something. There was hope for humanity long ago, I'm sure the prophets tried to bring this hope into the world, but that light has since faded and died out." Dr. Black started pacing back and forth. Dr. Zarkoff kept her eyes fixated on him and wanted to hear what else her crew-mate had to say. "I thought that technology might save us. I thought that we'd move into some sort of golden age of intellectual thought and Utopia where man would work towards the benefit and advancement of his own race. I thought there might be unity and a heaven on Earth where nobody would have to do work ever again. But that can't ever happen now..."

      "You can't always be so sure," Dr. Zarkoff reassured him.

      "No, it's over Evelia. It's over." Dr. Black reached into his back pocket and took out a knife. "Tell Laura I said goodbye and that I'll miss her." Dr. Black raised the knife above his head with both hands.

      "Noah, don't do it."

      But it was too late. With a swift downward thrust of his arms, Noah drove the end of the blade into his skull, killing himself and all remaining hope for humanity. Dr. Lyman rushed outside to see what all the commotion was about. After seeing Dr. Black's corpse sprawled out on the ground with a knife handle protruding from his bloody skull, she let out a shriek, cupped her mouth with her hands then turned her face. "He said he'd miss you."

      The days following Dr. Black's suicide were full of gloom and an overall feeling of what-now. Dr. Zarkoff wanted to go through with her other option which she presented earlier to Dr. Black: Return to the milky way and search for other signs of life. Dr. Lyman was a little hesitant and still in a state of shock when this was suggested to her. She wanted some time to recuperate. Some time to think it over.

      A few days later, Dr. Lyman agreed to her captain's proposal and it was established between the two that they would shoot themselves back into space to resume their search for signs of life. They weren't quite sure if they'd find anything or if they'd get very far, but by that point in time they figured they had nothing else to lose. And besides, they figured, the view from high up in outer space was simply breath-taking.