We Who Are Left On This Dying Earth

Jolene bent carefully down to the lowest of the squash plants, her knees creaking, and delicately used her paintbrush to pollinate the flowers. Once, she would have relied on insects to do this for her, but that was a long, long time ago.

The sunshine outside was intense, beating down onto the solar panels. The tall, plate-glass windows of her apartment were filled with tier upon tier of plants—squash and cucumbers and tomatoes and corn for food, herbs and chillies for flavour, ferns and spider plants to scrub the air. The ingenious irrigation system—which Cyrus called ‘The Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ after some ancient feat of engineering, the kind of thing he loved—kept everything well-watered with maximum efficiency. It was, like everything else in the apartment complex, including the building itself, cobbled together out of old broken bits of other things. Still, it worked.

Jolene stood up again slowly, and massaged her lower back with one hand. She needed to be careful—her health was a diminishing resource which needed to be eked out as long as possible. Or maybe it didn’t—what, after all, was the point?

Then she remembered Cyrus, as she always did when such thoughts came to her, and she set about pollinating the next row of plants.

“Hey Jolene.” Cyrus was emerging from his room, rubbing his eyes. He always woke up much later than she did. As with many other things, they had found that their differences only helped them live together. “Is there anything for breakfast?”

“Only what you make,” she answered with a smile.

“I’ll check the chickens,” he said.

It was the same routine every morning. Sometimes there were eggs. More often, there weren’t. It was, more than anything else, just a way of easing themselves into the day. As he walked past the rows of plants, Cyrus examined the workings of the hanging gardens and paused to make a minute tweak to one of the water spouts.

They were unlikely flatmates—one elderly woman who had lived in the east of Asia as a young girl, one young man whose parents had been born in Europe, but who had himself been raised in the great caravans migrating to Antarctica. Or at least they would have been unlikely flatmates before. Now they were just—the ones who were left over. The ones who couldn’t cope with the high-g shuttle launch to reach the great arks being built in orbit. Jolene too old now, and Cyrus with his heart condition. They wouldn’t survive the journey into space, and so they were left here to survive as best they could, in this half-empty building with a handful of equally decrepit neighbours.

“You know what day it is today, don’t you?” Cyrus asked. His voice sounded calm and level, like it never did unless he was trying very hard to keep it that way.

“Tuesday?” Jolene guessed. She still tried to keep track of days, although it grew harder and harder to care.

“Thursday, actually,” said Cyrus, with a small smile. “But that’s not what I meant.”

The realisation came over Jolene like a splash of cold water, only it made her throat dry. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Cyrus half-shrugged. “Don’t be,” he said, smiling at her again, although his eyes looked pained. “We all knew it was coming.”

He turned away from both her and the hanging gardens and went to the next room, the one where they kept their few scraggly chickens. Although she knew, logically, that the eggs were a better long-term food source, Jolene always found herself longing that Cyrus would decide one of them had ceased to lay and bring it to her to wring its neck. He was too squeamish to do the deed himself; he did not grow up in a time and place where he’d ever eaten animal flesh, let alone had to kill something. Her diet was mostly adequate—for a scrawny old lady—but the deep-seated hunger for protein never quite went away.

Jolene stepped onto the lowest rung of her stepladder, and started pollinating the next row of plants. Thanks to the fine-tuned empathy of spending so much time together, she felt a little of what Cyrus must be feeling, on this day of all days. She had nobody else left now—all her other friends had died before her, and all her younger family members had long since left Earth. But for Cyrus…

Cyrus still had a sister and a nephew. Or he did, until today. They were on the last of the great arks, bound for another star. Today was the last day they would be able to send a message to the ark before the time lag between the Earth and the ark grew too great and the ark’s acceleration took them far into the future. From hers and Cyrus’ perspective, at least. Jolene didn’t pretend to understand the principles behind time dilation, and she supposed that, having already lived over eight decades and seen many others into the earth before her, she had become accustomed to the idea of other lives continuing while her own ceased. Besides she had no desire to leave the planet of her birth. Cyrus, however, was young. He had not had nearly so much time to get used to the idea.

“I was up late again last night, looking through the telescope,” he said from behind her. He sounded like he was suppressing a yawn. Jolene glanced back. He had an egg in one hand.

“Did you see anything?” she asked.

“A glint from the engines,” he said. “No brighter than Epsilon Crucis. I’ll be able to see them for a while longer, I think. At least until there’s too much light.”

Even Jolene understood that stargazing in the southern summer was impossible, when the days grew so long that the nights disappeared. And by the time the nights lengthened again—would the ark be visible at all in the endless dark of winter, when the milky way stretched across the sky, cold and forbidding? Cyrus thought the stars were beautiful and had often told her so. She found them distant and frightening and could never wrap her head around the idea that the sun was just another star, and that one day humans—including her own flesh and blood—would live in orbit around a different star.

“Are you going to send a message tonight?” she asked.

“It’s the last chance,” he said, with a pained smile, “so I guess I should. But I don’t know what to say.”

“You’ll think of something,” she said. As she spoke, she thought of something herself, and saved that thought for later. “Now, are you going to stand around moping all day, or are you going to make us some breakfast and then help me with the plants?”

“I was thinking I’d stand around moping,” he said, even as he walked into the kitchen. Jolene carried on pollinating until he called her over for their meagre breakfast, and then they both set to work again. Pollination, irrigation, feeding the chickens, cleaning, performing maintenance on all the jury-rigged life-support systems… all their normal daily tasks that kept them busy, just keeping themselves alive. They spoke little to each other beyond what was necessary. They had already said most of what was possible to say and knew all about each other’s lives before they had met. Jolene, named after an ancient song—a song she owned on a black disc in a gold frame, the tune embedded somehow in a groove, and she had no idea how to extract it. Cyrus—named after an even more ancient king of a land the location of which neither of them really understood. Jolene’s ancestors had lived for centuries on a peninsula in Asia known as Korea, and had changed rulers many times without ever changing location. While Cyrus’ ancestors had been shipped across the ocean to a different continent against their will, and had sailed back as free men and women to a different continent again. Such distinctions, while interesting to discuss on the long Antarctic days and nights, had long ceased to mean much, as everyone left on Earth had migrated to the few places left habitable. And then most of them had launched into orbit, and then left the system altogether on the fleet of ark ships.

It was only when they went down into the store rooms—blessedly cool beneath the ground—to retrieve some of their rations of wheat flour and potato starch, that Jolene spoke again to Cyrus, voicing the thought she had saved from earlier.

“I think today is the day,” she said, lifting the bottle from its packing case and brushing the light coating of dust away.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“It’s the last bottle, today’s the last day. When else am I going to drink it?”

“If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

And so, after they had prepared the evening meal— not much less meagre than the morning one—Jolene popped the cork on the last bottle of champagne she owned, quite possibly the last bottle of champagne in the world. She poured out the bubbles from a vanished land—for it had been decades since anywhere in Europe had been able to sustain a crop of grapes—into their scuffed plastic beakers and then paused as she tried to think of an appropriate toast. The pause stretched, until at last, Cyrus helped her out.

“To us,” he said, and she clinked—or rather clicked—their glasses together.

“To us.”

“We who are left on this dying Earth,”he added.

“We who are left,”she echoed, and then drank, letting the rich buttery wine wash over her tongue. They sat in silence for a few minutes, both of them just sipping and savouring the taste.

“You know what bothers me,”Cyrus said.

There were many possible answers to that question. Jolene decided to offer none of them.

“What bothers me,”he went on, “aside from the obvious, is that when you die, I can at least remember you. I’ll turn you into compost to grow more food—”

Jolene nodded. Those of them who were left here had long since moved on from any sense of squeamishness about what happened to dead bodies. They might still shy away from direct cannibalism—some taboos hadn’t gone away—but nutrients were nutrients.

“—and I’ll keep your record, with your name, and I’ll probably still talk to you. But what about when I die? Who’ll be left to compost me? And what would even be the point in composting me, because who’ll be left to eat the food?”

Jolene tried not to dwell on it, but she was uncomfortably aware that, given how elderly she and most of their neighbours were, Cyrus was probably going to be the last person alive in the apartment block. Even with his heart condition. Quite possibly, he would be the last person alive on Earth. She certainly didn’t envy him that fate. She took a bigger sip of champagne—a gulp really—before answering him.

“Well,” she said, “you never know. Maybe they will discover some new technology that will allow them to return to Earth. Or find a cure for your condition, so you can go with them after all. Your sister might even come back here. Even if not her, somebody else might show up. Like, your great nephew or something.”

Cyrus took an unashamed swig of champagne, and gave her a look, chin lowered, one eyebrow raised. And then they both burst out laughing.

“Oh dear,” said Jolene, “these bubbles have gone right to my head.” She emptied her glass.

Cyrus stood up, not very steadily, and poured her a refill. “I’m going to send my message now,” he said, and then walked out, taking the champagne bottle with him.

Jolene didn’t offer to help. Some things needed to be done alone.


Cyrus walked into their tiny communications suite, and sat down in front of the transmitter. He switched it on, set down the bottle, and waited for it to warm up.

“Hey sis,” he said to the screen once the green light had come on. “Hope you and little Cy are doing well.”

He sort-of appreciated the fact that his nephew had been named after him, and sort-of found it patronising. Like, he couldn’t make it off the Earth, but a younger, healthier version of him could? Didn’t make being left behind any easier.

“I can still see you, just about. Been looking through my telescope every night. Last night was clear enough. I’m glad of that. Wanted to see you, before I send this message.”

He took a deep breath, and then a swig straight from the bottle. Bubbles exploded in his mouth. He didn’t much like the taste, truth be told, but that wasn’t the point.

“This will be the last message I send,” he said, which was unnecessary to say, and yet felt necessary nonetheless. He took another breath and another swig. What could he say to his last remaining relatives, to people who would have this message as the final memento of both him and the planet? How could anything be put into words?

“I want you to know,” he said, at last, “that we have plenty of food, and sunshine, and we’re doing well. Me and Jolene, we’re settled in here nicely. And we both wish you well, and hope you’ll think of us sometimes, when you’re living in the light of a different sun. I hope, little Cy, you’ll look up at the sky, and think about your Uncle Big Cy, and remember me and your great-aunt Jolene.”

He blew a kiss at the screen.

“She sends her love,” he said. “I know she never met you, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t think of you like you’re her family as well.”

He took another swig of champagne, then held the bottle towards the screen.

“This is the last bottle,” he said, “we’re drinking it tonight, in your honour. I want you to remember that. I want you to remember that we sat here, and thought of you, and we grew our plants, and we lived our lives, and we never stopped thinking about you.”

He paused, and sniffed. The words seemed inexplicably difficult to get out.

“And we never stopped loving you, sis, and, no, we—I… I never stopped wishing I could come with you, but you know what? I’m making a life here, with what’s left. I’ve got Jolene, who’s the best ancient auntie flatmate I could wish for, and I’ve got the hanging gardens of Babylon, and I’ve got the stars. And I’ve got you. The memory of you. And I want you to know…”

He sniffed again.

“I want you to know, that when I die and this planet becomes my tomb, I’ll still be here, with an empty champagne bottle, and a telescope, and a record of a song I’ve never heard, and if anyone ever comes back here from that other sun, that’s how you’ll recognise me.”

He didn’t need another sniff. He didn’t need another drink. There was only one thing left to say.

“That’s how you’ll know I loved you. Big Cy is signing off now. Love to you, sis, and Little Cy. Good luck among the stars. Find a good one for me.”

He checked that the message had gone to the ark, then he switched off the transmitter, and sat back. Tonight, he thought, he would look at the stars, and try to find the glint of the ark one last time. And even if he never found that glint again, he would know that his final message had reached them.

It was done. Cyrus felt light-headed, uncertain whether to laugh or cry. He looked around him, but there was nothing else left for him here. Part of his brain had already started thinking about how the communications equipment could be repurposed now that there was nobody to talk to outside their apartment block.

Cyrus left the room and went to share the rest of the champagne with Jolene.