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Ten Minutes till the End (of the World)

Euphoria Kew is a playwright and an author. She writes suspense and sf/tragedies. She has published several short stories and her short plays have been performed at various fringe festivals in United Kingdom. She lives in Bristol, UK.

"Do you think there's intelligent life on other planets?"
Her question, so cliched at any other time, makes my throat constrict around a sob. But I'm not going to break down. I'm kept together by force of a lifelong habit that's too late to change. Instead, I hold her gaze and smile--like a general might knowing the battle is lost and his armies scattered.
The water above us fills once again with the tale-tale whispers. And then, it screams.
It's been less than a decade since humans established a permanent base in the least accessible place on Earth, the Marine Trench. Nature's last frontier was finally conquered. But even now, the "base" is nothing more than a metal capsule with barely enough room for two people. Stuffed chock full of scientific equipment, it has a pressurized oxygen supply sufficient to sustain us for exactly forty hours.
At the moment we received the first warning form the surface, we'd been here for half that time.
What followed was a broken stream of increasingly erratic messages, appraising us of the global nature of the threat. Stay down and Wait. Within half an hour, the communication was severed entirely and we heard a different kind of sound for the first time. The screams. Faint as whispers, muted through trillions of litters of water.
They don't allow just anyone down here. Candidates for this outpost are endlessly tested for that perfect blend of scientist and adventurer that never succumbs to panic, even under the threat of death. And so, we don't. We identify the "screams" as the sound of phase transition of water, heard as from the inside. Our measuring instruments confirm an intermittent drop in temperature.
The surface of the ocean appears to be freezing over.
We dispense with incredulity and discuss our options. With the pressure down here critical even on a good day, the expanding liquid can easily push it past the endurance limits of our technology. Our tiny, frail pod would be crushed to dust.
Then again, water's relatively slow to change phase and this far down we'd have been insulated for longest. The landmasses must be completely destroyed.
A simple conclusion: everyone up there must be dead.
If ever there was a perfect moment for two humans to understand each other, this is it. She's just like me--a marine physicist, explorer with a sparkling bright mind, unmoved in the face of danger and, I'm guessing, shaking with terror on the inside. Just like me.
If we are in fact the last ones left, we have a little over eighteen hours to escape this improbable safe room. After that, it'll be up to us to restart the species. The new Adam and Eve. Life coming out of the ocean, once more.
It's unlikely we'll escape.
We have no way of knowing what caused the cataclysm. I suspect it was the same thing that brought about all major environmental catastrophes of our times--us. As a species, we never learned that this planet was our life support, not a toy.
Or perhaps I'm wrong and we were hit by a rock from outer space or some such. Unlikely, that kind of environmental change would take months to develop. It doesn't really matter now.
We can hear the screaming again, still faint but getting louder. The shrill noise reverberates through me, unsettling. Seconds later, speakers in the control panel emit a pressure warning--a soft sound designed to inform without startling. Quite ridiculous under the circumstances. Almost casually, Eve reaches over and flicks it off. Yes, we know.
I glance over at the monitor, my mind automatically processing the data. These were the last screams we'll hear. Whatever's causing this would have to stop, right now, for us to survive.
I hope for the best and prepare for the other thing.
So, what is there to do in the last minutes? Crying? Praying?... Remembering?
"We should leave a note," says Eve and I think it's the best idea ever. A simple scrap of paper, wrapped up tiny and taped waterproof might, just might, survive.
It won't fit all our work. The breakthroughs, the achievements, all the complexities of one personality, never mind two. Perhaps we should describe what happened, leave a warning so others can learn from our mistakes. No, I'm suddenly struck with a realization that no one ever learns from past mistakes or we wouldn't be here. Instead, I suggest we make it about ourselves, her and me. We write down our names. It's the simplest mark, a reminder to whoever may find it: we existed.
Except now, there's no one left to find it.
I can tell she's thinking the same thing. She looks at me, her fingers deftly folding our note, small as she can, reducing a great civilization to a message in a bottle, as she says:
"Do you think there's intelligent life on other planets?"
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

Author Comments

I believe everyone has a need to be heard, to be noticed and understood. It's a catalyst for our creativity, for exploration, leads to great achievements and brings about change. But if our world changes--can we still be noticed and understood?

- Euphoria Kew
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