Return to Dust by John Tuttle

     A group of four approached what appeared to be a deserted factory building. They could not see one another’s faces because of the helmets of the spacesuits they were wearing. The broad, tinted visors allowed the astronauts to look outward but masked the visibility of anyone trying to see whose face was behind the helmet. The large structure they were walking up to was rather dilapidated. Half the windows were broken, the walls covered in graffiti, the foundation cracked and splitting.

     One by one, they slowly and solemnly entered. None of them said a word. They just continued to look. The floor was lightly coated in sand, and in some places, dust fell softly and silently from the ceiling above. The ground level was for the most part open and clean. Other than the grains of soil there was no debris cluttering the place, and all of the windows here had been completely shattered from inside the building.

     “Jackson and Simms,” the commander addressed two of the astronauts behind her, “I want you to recon the second story and then report back before you go on to the next one.”

     “Yes, commander,” reverberated their response, and they were off, carrying out their orders. Commander Jeniver Fenton and Lieutenant Chad Tabbi were left alone with the task of securing the initial perimeter.

     “What are we looking for?” Tabbi asked.

     “I don’t know,” Fenton answered. With that, she went in one direction, and her follower went the other. She checked in storage closets, under desks, between the machinery, everywhere. The lieutenant did likewise in his sectors.

     Distraught and bewildered, this small party of space travelers had returned to their home, but on their arrival they found it in a demolished state and broken state. The city streets were clear of all people. Not a soul was to be seen, nor any living thing: animal, plant, or bug. The wind blew harshly; the disturbed earth created a sort of perpetual cloud of dust moving between the buildings. And the astronauts did not have the faintest notion as to what catastrophic phenomenon may have caused their beloved Earth so much destruction. They had stepped into the future, and they did not like the look of it.

     Now the commander desperately led her men in a hunt for anything which could shed light on what happened here or for anyone who might be left. The old factory building was similar to the others they had gone through: quiet and still. Commander Fenton was on the verge of giving up hope and giving in to despair when she heard a familiar voice.

     “Commander!” Lieutenant Tabbi’s exclamation came through crisp and clear over the receiver. “You’re gonna want to see this!”

     Jeniver came as quickly as possible and found Chad bending over a little transducer capable of recording audio as well as playing it back. The commander contacted the other two and told them to return to the first floor. Once they were there, Jeniver nodded her head in approvement, the lieutenant turned on the speaker, and the device proceeded to feed out its recordings:

     “(*Sigh*) I fear that my time and that of the whole human race is drawing near to an end. All of our history reflects how little people think about death. And now I begin to consider the possibility of a benevolent Supreme Being, a concept I have often scoffed at throughout my life. But now I find what little hope there is to find in the belief of an afterlife and even mercy. I am as guilty as any other human being for what is happening in our present day.

     “We the stewards of this Earth are responsible for our own annihilation and perhaps that of the very planet itself. The ‘progress of humanity’ as some have called it is the cause of war, numerous diseases, and pollution. Through man’s greed and lust for power he has stripped the Earth of its natural resources, not once hesitating to consider why nature produced such resources in the first place.

     “As you might guess, we are far from perfect; we are prone to making mistakes. And among some of the serious mistakes made in the past century are oceanic oil spills. The two most recent spills have been extremely severe. And they don’t just have a visible effect on the larger sea creatures; the oil kills the microscopic lifeforms called plankton. And it is from plankton that over half the world’s oxygen is generated. The combination of the oil spills along with the increase in the lumber business, which has removed countless forests, has resulted in nearly half of the Earth’s oxygen to disappear.

     “This drastic change along with the continued use of factories such as this one, which bellow out carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, has damaged the Earth’s ozone layer. The sun now beats down relentlessly on the face of the Earth. The season of spring is upon us. It is getting hard to do even the simple things like breathing. Crops will not grow; they are scorched. More plants die; the air grows thinner. A great sandstorm has enveloped a large portion of the U.S. just as it did during the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.

     “The rising heat and decrease in oxygen levels have caused birth defects and a whole series of other medical problems which is too long to go through. Every body of water is being depleted through evaporation, and the water will not return as rain. We are in a drought. Africa is among the greatest places of suffering right now. All the sweat and tears we shed don’t last long. Any small amount of moisture’s evaporated very quickly. Some people cannot even cry; their bodies lack so much water.

     “I am very thirsty now. Water is rationed. I pray to feel the wind on my face, but I dare not go outside. It’s nearly 1:00 PM. I don’t think I’ll waste my short breaths much longer. I just must say that there is no one to blame for humanity’s current predicament other than humanity itself.”

     That was the end of the audio narrative, but it made none of the space travelers feel any better. If anything it instilled them with anxiety and fear like never before. The astronauts turned to their commander, and she knew not to whom she could turn.

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