“Houston!” the astronaut said, but he failed to complete the well-worn cliché.
The on-board cameras, however, were unambiguous in showing the world what unfolded next. The crew of the resupply vessel appeared to shimmer, became translucent, fragmented into ashen dust, and dissolved into nothingness.
The spacecraft, now minus a human component to direct its course, continued its trajectory into the infinity of deep space. Meantime, on the International Space Station, where the personnel had been expecting the crew of the resupply vessel to replace them so they could return to Earth, every man and woman aboard also vanished.
Alien abduction? Sabotage? Abnormal sunspot radiation? Pundits and laymen alike took their pick of the abundant conjectures and conspiracy theories concerning the astronauts’ disappearance.
Across the globe, the launching of manned spacecraft was indefinitely put on pause until more was known about the unprecedented phenomenon that had occurred. Then, a month later, aircraft started dropping out of the skies.
“There are no corpses or body parts amongst the wreckage,” a rescue team reported from a debris-strewn field in Western Australia, and in doing so, reignited theories of alien abduction.
At international airports across the world, all commercial airliners were grounded, while private jets were consigned by law to their hangars until further notice.
Soon after the cessation of airline transportation, a Filipina mountaineer radioed to base camp from the heights of Mount Everest. “I can’t see any of the other climbers in my party,” she said, her voice quavering. “They were a little ways ahead of me. I can see clearly all the way to the summit, but there’s no one there—no one.”
That was the climber’s final communication.
End-of-the-Worlders and alien abduction conspiracists vied for the attention of an increasingly frightened global audience.
In the Rockies, the Alps, the Himalayas, climbers willingly ascended the tallest mountains, never again to be seen, trekking upwards in hopes of a religious resurrection or of a meeting of minds with extraterrestrials.
As the diurnal revolution of the earth continued, and as life tried to go on as normal in spite of the growing fear, a radio sports commentator broadcast an international football match live from La Paz. “The half-time score is Bolivia two, Argentina nil,” he announced excitedly to soccer-mad South America, from the loftiest football pitch on earth.
No second-half commentary was ever heard, though. The players, spectators and commentator went silent and were neither seen nor heard of again. No one bothered attempting to make their way to La Paz to find out why.
With a mentality approaching denial and a forlorn hope that everything would miraculously return to normal, mankind carried on with its humdrum, day-to-day existence until an event occurred in the USA that was impossible to ignore. During a televised basketball game, the arena erupted with cheering as the Utah Jazz’s point guard made a flying slam dunk. In mid-air, however, his physical form blurred, broke into a million pieces, and was no more. Seconds afterwards, the gawping spectators and the players on the court and on the benches likewise vanished.
On TV a few days later, a world-renowned zoologist announced an until then unobserved anomaly. “Pets and livestock, no longer under the domination of mankind, are wandering down from higher elevations, bleating and mewling with hunger. They are otherwise unaffected by this deadly anomaly that’s sweeping the upper reaches of our planet and depleting it of its people.”
“We’re being exterminated for the sins we’ve perpetrated against Nature,” vegan anarchists asserted.
“We’re being rounded up by aliens as a food source because of our overabundance on Earth,” advocates of population control countered.
In a panic across the globe, folk fled to the planet’s lower-lying regions until, congregating on beaches, the survivors of ever-depleted humanity shimmered, fragmented, and were gone. Those who surged into the sea and dived under the waves lasted only a few seconds longer until the necessity to breathe forced them back to the surface, at which point they too disintegrated.
Beneath the ocean, on board a mutinous British nuclear submarine that had refused to complement its crew with cabinet ministers and members of the royal family, the radio operator attempted to contact Faslane Naval Base in Scotland.
While his captain stood on the platform at the periscope, disconsolately following the erratic course of a crewless cargo ship, the radio operator gave up attempting to contact anyone at their base.
He sat back in his chair and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Captain. There’s just no reply.”
Paul A. Freeman is the author of Rumours of Ophir, a crime novel which was taught at ‘O’ level in Zimbabwean high schools and has been translated into German.
In addition to having two novels, a children’s book and an 18,000-word narrative poem (Robin Hood and Friar Tuck: Zombie Killers!) commercially published, Paul is the author of hundreds of published short stories, poems and articles.
He resides in Abu Dhabi.