Day’s end approached ever so slowly, complemented in part by the silhouette of an owl against the backdrop of a twilit sky, perched stoically on the branch of a straggling acacia tree. I crossed myself and after glancing at my watch, my soul shrank just a little bit more. I stared down at my green bottle and wondered how far inside I could crawl. Not far enough, the world was always waiting when I hit the bottom and time and circumstances forced me to crawl back out.
I wasn’t about to end myself. Suicides had gone up all around the world and here, in the little so-called Warm Heart of Africa (Malawi), things were no different. Bodies were lying dead in the streets like twisted, flesh-covered mannequins, broken limbs pointing up at the sky accusingly, faces locked in painful grimaces, eyes empty and void. Lilongwe city council dump trucks, like so many across the globe, couldn’t keep up, so Mother Nature was left to deal with the backlog. Oversized vultures and mangy dogs picked bones clean, swarms of flies hung suspended like black, spectral clouds above the corpses. As much as I was afraid of what was coming from on high, I was more afraid of a fire-fuelled afterlife. God had gone and died for a lot of people sometime during the twentieth century, but during the ‘End Days’ (that’s what some people were calling it), He had been more alive than at any other point in human history. I strongly doubted He was saving anyone, not in the way people were hoping. No one was coming to save us now, not even God. That was how I chose to look at everything. I mean, it wasn’t like we couldn’t see the end coming. All one had to do was look up and believe. Lucifer and his fallen angels were being cast out of the heavens yet again.
They were visible during the day now, brilliant as the morning star and even more spectacular by night, spiralling down through the heavens, at times outshining even the sun, the moon pale by comparison, moving steadily, with determination and purpose to their final destination: Earth.
I took a swig, the beer coursing down my insides. The tingling started around my ears, a slight buzz that would get louder the more I drank. Bronze coloured clouds bundled past like lost sheep and dreams, the air tight and clustered, peppered by the intermittent glow of sojourning fireflies, cloistered crickets whiling away in the undergrowth, unseen bugs bugging the crap out of me. It all ambled by, undisturbed, unperturbed, unshaken. Life. The only life that would come to an end T-minus 42300 minutes from that moment was human life. After thousands of years, we would all exit in a cataclysm of falling bombs, their primary weapon. I laughed long and hard, the phlegm working its way up from deep within my chest. I leant over, closed my eyes and did my thing, wiping my mouth with a trembling palm. I didn’t want to think where my blob of gob might have fallen. The group of women sitting on a mat on the verandah of the house opposite stared, shaking their heads. They were having hourly prayers and probably thought I’d finally lost it. I was sure they would mutter a quick prayer for my troubled soul.
I laughed some more, looking up again at the silent, cascading brilliance that approached at the speed of light. Breaking news about half an hour ago put them just beyond Uranus (I laughed when I heard that and laughed again as I recalled it) and would be travelling faster as the combined gravitational fields of the planets in their path, including the Suns’, pulled them in, but their descent would be slowed as they neared their designated target. Fuck no, it wouldn’t be a meteorite that ended the human race, not like with the dinosaurs. They’d been as dumb as a box of rocks, so maybe it was only right that the Universe had sent them out the way it had. It was killer machines we’d sent out to pave the way for our departure from Earth, prepare a place for us somewhere in the star-spangled nothingness, that were coming back to slice and dice the masters.
Theories abounded as to what might have possibly gone wrong. A glitch in the software, bad code maybe, self-awareness, aliens reprogramming them. The mission had been dubbed the salvation of mankind, a new golden age, the technological equivalent of the Olympics, uniting people from every walk of life in celebration, dance and song. The general idea had been simple enough. Send drones into the cosmos, have them identify a planet we could later occupy. Report back. Machine replicators, that’s what they called them, capable of building other machines for as long as was needed. Some said that was where things started to go wrong. Something that advanced could not be set loose into the Universe without human operators overseeing their every move. We followed their progress for nine years, the machines moving at sub-light speed, documenting everything along the way, arriving at Planet X on the 23rd of October, 2045, beaming back images and tons of data. We had a new home and the partying that came with that discovery was insane.
Insane and short-lived. In the tenth year, a year after planet fall, the live feeds went dead overnight. The Engineers deduced the reason could be a prolonged delay in the relay feeds, data streams were being interrupted by cosmic interference…blah. All we could do now was wait for the channels to clear, then the machines would get back on-line and the celebrations could begin again.
The screens were blank for a year after that and it was concluded that the probes had been destroyed, a solar wind perhaps, a comet maybe…blah, blah, blah and more blah. It really didn’t matter at that point anymore. A project that had cost billions of dollars and taken decades of research had gone dark, literally. We shrugged our shoulders and looked for another reason to continue the party.
Astronomers from all over the world were the first to notice the unusual lights moving erratically beyond Andromeda, on a direct route to Earth. The mystery as to what they could be exactly was solved when a month later, a deep space probe identified them: our prodigal children returning home, but with serious modifications to their hardware and operating systems. Scanning revealed they had gone considerable system upgrades that were alien in their technology and origin. A radio message was received a few weeks later by international observatories from the same general direction as the oncoming mass. It didn’t need decryption and was pretty self-explanatory: ‘Destroy all humans’.
The Deep Space Singularity Machines had been designed with the hardships of prolonged deep space travel in mind, they were man’s crowning achievement and glory. Those basic tenets had effectively been exploited by whatever had decided to tamper with them. That entity, wherever it was, whatever it was, did not have our best interests at heart or in mind when it made those changes. On departure from Earth, they had been packed chockful of nukes and bombs, were capable of assembling anything they did not have and needed on site. I looked up at the sky, my stomach releasing a batch of acid that did not agree with my weakened constitution at all. They were coming back and now possessed the power to end hundreds of worlds a thousand times over. We had opened Pandora’s box. And there was nothing we could do to un-close or stop it.
And we had tried everything. Oh, had we tried. Deep range space nukes had not slowed them down, EMP blasts hadn’t done the trick either. They just reassembled from scratch. You had to love nano-tech. It had improved life on Earth up to a point and life on Earth was now about to end courtesy of the same tech. I laughed. One really could not escape the irony of it all.
The sun dipped lower into the horizon, blood-red and crimson all haemorrhaging into one, the descending machines reflecting its light like shoals of silver fish. Celestial piranhas. There must have been billions upon billions. It was truly breath-taking, but that did not belay the fear. People in the streets stopped and stared, tears of anguish streaming down their faces, cries of despair caught in their throats. The Passion of the human race. There was no official count of the advancing machines. Not that it mattered either. Estimates were that by the time they reached Earth, they would outnumber every alive human being on the planet ten to one. I took another swig from my bottle. Shit. Talk about overkill.
A gun went off in the distance, the report echoing several times over, I could not really pinpoint where. Another one bites the dust. I bowed my head and raised my bottle in salutation. Whoever you were, you had the balls, you got out just in the nick of time.
The sun finally set, that single act wrapping everything in deep, haunting shadow, lights still going on all around the neighbourhood. What little was left of life would never be the same. I had made my painful peace with all of it. The Universe had sent us a message and it was loud and clear: our time was up, our chapter was coming to a close. We were all flecks of fickle faeces going down the Universal drain. The history books I’d read in secondary school said civilization first started in Africa, so I guessed it only made sense, heck it was only fair, that I was here when it ended. I leant over, lifting the lid of my cooler, a smile born of satisfaction crossing my face. There was enough booze to take me into a tortured oblivion but oblivion all the same. It was a small comfort and there was not much of that going round these days. I would take it where I found it. Hands down, no questions asked, no complaints.
The sky would continue to shine the entire night, the approaching cloud of liquid silver getting closer, shimmering as it waxed and waned, eager and earnest in its decline. I wondered what I would be doing when I finally met my demise. I shrugged my shoulders, crossing my legs. There really was no point in thinking that far ahead. The end would come soon enough, it really wasn’t that far off now. I took another swig. I’ll drink to that.