's 2016 Horror Write-off:

The Last Light

Submitted by Nelke

The future came and left. It took with it the space cities, the endless extensions of solar panels on the Moon, the dreams of conquering the Solar system. Maintenance was expensive. Every year we wasted oil and time and effort in sending our precious resources into space; machinery, life support systems, luxuries such as beer or meat to maintain the good humor of the crews. However, governments soon grew tired of entertaining that exercise on futility, that rat race to nowhere.

Cities on Earth expanded; they grew bigger, sustained by polymer megaskeletons; they sank into wells, heated by the radiation of the outer mantle; they grew on stalks or floated like lazy clouds in the sky. However, the space beyond the stratosphere remained a desert.

Beyond the limits of Earth only a few remained, the misfits, the ones running away, the ones with nothing else to do. They were the ones bestowed with the thankless work of keeping machines working in a vacuum or in corrosive atmospheres until they fell apart, to stay in control missions tracing orbits in slow descent towards empty planets.

The terraformation of Mars failed, and with it the promise of making other planets habitable. We kept two outposts on it to defend a nominal sovereignity on it, as well as on the moon, manned by crews in long shifts. These, and the cloud of detritus and satellites around our planet, were the relics of the space program.

We all knew that a designation to Mars was a punishment, for mediocrity more than insubordination. We were the lazy ones, the cynic ones, the ones who did not have the motivation to up and go look for something better. Seventy-five women and men living of the same recycled air and water under a perpetually dim light. The veteran ones had been there for decades. They were the ones showing us the petty secrets of the station: the hideaway where clandestine liquor was distilled, a harsh beverage that burned the throat but made the nights shorter; the dead angles in the corridors the cameras could not reach; the Pyrrhic economy based on cigarettes made with tobacco grown in the hydroponic tanks. With their example, they also taught us about the things that should not be spoken about.

They arrive in waves, at the beginning nothing but shadows melting with the landscape at the other side of the portholes. The newcomers always complain about migraines, insomnia, psychic intrusions coming from the outside, while the instruments detected nothing. The first days of an outbreak, the station always looks darker and colder. We raised the heating in our cabins without giving a thought to the credits we were wasting and the hardships at the end of the month.

Some of us see them, other cannot. Nobody has ever tried to describe them. For me they are just black silhouettes against the dunes, shadows thrown to the surface, resembling nothing in particular. The only thing I can discern is that they seem to grow closer every day.

They leave without a warning, just like a candle being put out. Sometimes they emit a buzz just beneath the threshold of hearing that resonates down the metal corridors and scared the lab animals when we still had them. And then they are gone. And one of us with them.

More and more of us are gone, lost in the dusk, casualties registered in the station computer under the causes of food poisoning, peritonitis, old age. Anything to not write "suicide", and arise suspicions on Earth.

My cabin mate has been silent for days, and he lies on her bed. She does not respond to my attempts at conversation, and she does not react to gestures. She does not eat. She just stares day and night beyond the radiation-shielded wall, as if she could see through it. Her mind is out there, and the body will soon follow.

I put order, as I usually do, in my half of the room, knowing that soon I will have more space for myself. Absences do not shock us anymore. Most of the crew seem eager to join the ones who left, and they pack their belongings and send their last and cryptic messages home. I do not share their enthusiasm, and this has caused some curious glances. No, I want to tell them. I am not afraid. But I would rather stay here, after all of you have left, and take care of the empty station and the dying instruments, until it is time to switch off the last light.