The Color of the Planet Earth
Michael X. Wang
The number of seats was limited. Miller Thompson, the owner of the Shuttle-plane Corporation, made no announcements. The passengers learned about the scheduled takeoffs through hearsay—the friends of Thompson and his crew told their friends, and so on—until every seat of the twenty shuttle planes were full. Still, on the day of the asteroid’s arrival, when the planes were being boarded, thousands of people surrounded the granite walls and electrified fences that enclosed the airport. Inside, even the passenger’s families, those who’d not been selected, tried topping the steel grates and rushing the escalator. As the planes ascended, looking out the tiny oval window at the people getting smaller and smaller, Thompson remarked to his lieutenant that it was really a wonder the planes took off at all.
In his compartment on shuttle-plane number four, Dale shadowboxed in front of his mirror. Throwing two jabs, an uppercut, left hook, and then right hook, he watched the reflection of Earth over his shoulder. He could not make out which part of Earth they were orbiting, the shape of the continents obscured by the brown atmosphere. Ten years prior he had been heavyweight-boxing champion of the world. Having grown up in Brooklyn, Dale liked to imagine that they were orbiting over Madison Square Garden, or what was left of it. He was nearing forty now, life having become difficult after losing his title. He had just suffered two years of amnesia, two years of living with his parents as they told him about his childhood and career, the memory returning not through a huge burst but in slow increments. The amnesia was a product of the repeated punishment to his skull and the controversial, heartbreaking loss by decision after nine rounds in the ring in an attempt to regain his title. And now this: when he was finally healthy enough to challenge the world again, there was no longer a world left for him to challenge. Martin Toleson had held the title when the asteroid hit, and thinking about this Dale felt a jealousy rising in him. Toleson, a white man from Ireland, would be known as the heavyweight champion of the world from now until who knows when, perhaps the last champion, with no one left to challenge his reign. He had put this down on his application to become a shuttle plane passenger—his nephew was one of the engineers on board—and Thompson had accepted his application because he “showed a great will to survive both through his suffering and his accomplishments.” On the accepted application, Thompson also remarked that they needed strong men like him to perform the copious amounts of manual labor when the dust clouds cleared and the planes were able to land in Antarctica.
Two compartments down, Melanie looked out the window at Earth until she got bored. She would turn seven in two days and she took out the handheld gaming device her parents had given her before she boarded—an early birthday present, they had told her. There were games in there about horseback riding, performing gymnastics, and shooting space aliens. After a few hours, she turned to another section of the device. Her parents had uploaded their photo albums. She looked through the pictures of her family for half an hour before remembering that the device was also a camera. Before she boarded the plane, her parents had told her to take a lot of photos on her trip to space so she could show them after she got back. She took a few photos of Earth from her window and then a few of herself in front of the mirror. Opening her compartment door to see if there was anything else of interest, she looked left and right and got scared because the halls were so quiet. Not used to being alone, she imagined the plane full of angry ghosts. That morning, after she had boarded the plane, the windows hadn’t been open and she couldn’t see her parents waiting outside. But there had been a lot of frightening noises of people screaming, and ever since liftoff she couldn’t get their voices out of her head. The flight attendant escorted her and the other children to their compartments at the back of the plane, and she told Melanie that there had been an accident at the airport but that they shouldn’t worry, because they were all far away from the fire now.
On the flight deck, Captain Yuzhou got up from the pilot’s seat and stretched his legs. His flight crew had served with him for the last five years. Most of them were busy talking with the other shuttle-planes. In lieu of other passengers, Miller’s plane had stockpiled a year’s supply of rations for him and his family. By contrast, Yuzhou’s plane had two hundred and twelve passengers and a week’s supply of water and food. For the landing over Antarctica, they also packed fur coats and gas masks. Though the crew had been enthusiastic to the passengers about survival, Thompson told Yuzhou and the other captains that finding a hospital spot on Earth was slim. He put the odds at one out of ten. The planet’s color—the level of blueness—would be their indication of whether or not it was ready for habitation. In the likely event that no such opportunity for return was possible, the ships were stockpiled with morphine and arsenic: “much better than starving to death or being lit up in the inferno of a crashing plane.”
Yuzhou was an old man without a wife, having served in the Chinese Air Force for most of his youth. He was an enigma to his family, all of whom, before the asteroid hit, had been farmers in a small Chinese village. The only one of his brothers without children, he had often considered, before the asteroid hit, that his life had been a failure, since he didn’t have a family of his own. He wouldn’t now call his life a success, but there was a certain sadistic satisfaction, even if he couldn’t return to Earth, in having outlived his relatives. Besides, his crew was his family now and he wanted to be with them when he died. He wondered if his crew felt the same. They must have had family back on Earth they’d rather be with during their last moments, but none of them had complained when given the possibility of life.
When the craft orbited over the horizon and passed into the dark side of Earth, the emergency lights were turned on, giving the corridors an effect of being illuminated by long strings of candles. The air current was spiced with a fragrance similar to that of fresh laundry. The Shuttle-plane Corporation was a leisure aircraft liner, able to reach sub-atmospheric altitudes for brief periods of time. The ships’ main attraction was their ability to provide weightlessness for the hour when they were at their apex.
Over the loudspeaker, Captain Yuzhou cordially requested the passengers to meet him, the crew, as well as each other at the plane’s center lounge, where wine and champagne and other refreshments would be served.
Dale exited his compartment to a flurry of people walking by. He had briefly seen the other passengers during boarding, before they entered their separate compartments. There were well-dressed men like him, wearing shades and stepping on with nobody to see them off. There were families sifting through their belongings after being informed of the one suitcase rule. And there were a surprising number of children by themselves, their parents waving and crying behind steel grates. He had shaken his head in disbelief. Once the passengers settled back on Earth, they would need hardy men like him in order to survive. Kids, Dale thought, would just become an added burden.
There was a knock on Melanie’s door and then the sound of keys turning. The flight attendant wore a blue silk scarf and smiled when she came in, and Melanie took her hand and looked at the boy holding her other hand. The boy was much older than Melanie, taller, though he still had missing teeth. Her own baby teeth had started to fall out a few months ago and there were even a couple loose in her mouth. She was afraid that one or two might fall out before the trip was over, wondering whether or not the tooth fairy could fly at such a high altitude. For weeks before the trip, her parents had not allowed her to watch TV or go to school or even step outside her house. Though she was happy that she didn’t need to go to school, she had felt confined and lonely, like she was stuck inside a lidless teapot. Now she looked over her shoulder at the boy and saw him looking at her, too. Letting go of the flight attendant’s hand, she took out her gaming device and turned it towards the boy. She said, “Smile!”
The crew had all left the deck and Captain Yuzhou stayed behind and double-checked the meters, making sure the plane was staying on course. He had written two speeches, one informing the passengers that if the Earth’s atmosphere didn’t clear, it might be necessary for the crew to pass out thumb-sized canisters of morphine and arsenic, and another omitting the pessimism and simply discussing the course of action that would follow after they had landed, the logistics of harvesting resources and melting ice into water. He kept both speeches inside his pocket as he made his way down the corridor, descended a carpeted staircase, and entered the center lounge. A flight attendant handed him the ship roster and informed him of absences. “One-hundred and sixty-five passengers came down, sir. The remaining ones must still be in their compartments. We can ask them to come down if you want.” Yuzhou shook his head. “Just make sure the loudspeakers are on when I make my speech.” He took off his hat, revealing white hair and crow’s feet stretching to his temples.
The lounge was large, with red carpet and leather sofas and thick windows made of plate glass. The room was able to comfortably fit four hundred, its thin stairs and dim lights giving it the quality of an amphitheater. A podium stood at the bottom, with two flight attendants standing to the left and right under the shuttle-plane Corporation banner—a sun with the silhouette of a plane flying into it.
The passengers were allowed to mingle. They quickly separated themselves into two distinct groups. Optimistic ones like Dale gathered by the punch bowl and wine cooler, where the Captain was standing, hoping to overhear some confirmation that all would be well. They were mostly young, anchorless men and women with one hand in their pocket and the other carrying a glass of bubbling champagne as if this were a New Year’s Eve party. They talked about the family and friends they had lost in a falsely harrowing manner while secretly taking down mental notes on each other: who would dominate, who could be taken advantage of, who would make an appealing mate to repopulate humanity.
The pessimistic ones stayed away from the bar, opting instead to sit on the couches. They were artists and scientists, and they knew that their chances for survival were slim if not nonexistent. They tended to be families, and they viewed this trip as a limited gift—an extended week for their loved ones before the end. They watched the optimistic ones by the wine cooler with alarm and pity, bewildered by anyone who still retained hope and fearful that this hope might be contagious.
The flight attendants gathered the plane’s fifty-seven children into a corner of the room and served them juice boxes and mixed nuts. Their ages ranged from three to fifteen, and they were the loudest section of the lounge, the younger ones jumping up and down the couches and running in circles, while the older ones who understood what was happening sat quietly by themselves. “It is important to stock the planes with children,” Miller Thompson had told his captains. “Children give hope to people. They are easily deceived and naturally optimistic. Unused to life’s rules, they have the surprising capacity to survive almost anywhere. Most Nazi concentration camps had playgrounds. The sole reason that many of the captives were able to endure was seeing their children happy.”
Melanie did not stay with the group. While the flight attendants were too busy trying to calm down the other kids, she snuck away and began taking pictures. She approached the families on the couches and said, “Smile.” Then she walked over to Captain Yuzhou, whose crew stood behind him at attention, and took a picture of him looking at two folded pieces of paper. Yuzhou patted her head and she walked over to the tables where the punch and wine cooler were kept.
“Hey,” she said, tugging on a man’s sleeve.
Dale was talking to a young woman, a former cheerleader for the Detroit Lions, bragging that he had once been heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He looked down at the girl and then back up, resuming his talk with the young woman.
“Excuse me.” Melanie tried to shove by him, this time with enough force to cause him to nearly spill his drink.
“Yes?” he said.
Melanie was not scared of people, only of the supernatural: ghosts, vampires, aliens. “I can’t reach the punch,” she said. “Can you please pour me a cup?”
“I’m no stewardess.” But he reached for a cup anyway and filled it with dark red punch. The cheerleader giggled. Bending down and handing the cup to Melanie, he noticed that a white man standing next to him had already started talking to the cheerleader, that all along the man had been waiting for an opportunity to cut in. Dale rose, about to make a scene, when there came another tug on his sleeve.
“What do you want now?”
“What’s your name?” Melanie asked.
“Dale,” he said. “Your parents never told you to not to interrupt adults?”
“Dale.” Melanie drew out the word. “One of my uncles is named Dale. He’s big, like you, but not as big as my dad.” She sipped on her punch, leaving a ring of red around her lips. “Do you know anything about ghosts?”
“There ain’t no such thing as ghosts. Your daddy should’ve told you that.”
“Yes there are,” she said. “My dad kills ghosts all the time.”
Dale saw this white girl’s father on his knees, looking under her bed, the girl in her pajamas carrying some stuffed animal. He felt sorry for them: for her father who was probably dead, and for this girl who didn’t know that her father was dead. Outside the plate-glass windows, a brown circular cloud was expanding from the Iberian Peninsula, the asteroid’s point of impact. Dale wondered what this girl’s parents had written down on her application to become a passenger. Why did she deserve to survive while the other children on the planet died? Did Thompson simply think of people like him as manual labor, so that the next generation of white folks like her didn’t need to work? He glanced around the room at the other children: None of them were anything other than white.
“There’s one ghost on this ship at this very moment,” Melanie continued. “I’ve seen him in my room. A big one.” She stretched her arms as far out as possible to give the man a good indication of the monster’s size.
“This is a little too cute for me,” Dale said. “Run along now. Get one of the ladies to help you.”
The girl kept on talking as if she didn’t hear him. “I didn’t get a good look at it. But it was big. With wings like a hawk and fangs.”
“Why are you telling me this? What do you want me to do about it?”
“I’m telling you this,” Melanie said, “because you are as big as my father. And I think you’re big enough to tackle this monster and throw him off the plane and tell him to never come back. Just pretend like I’m your daughter.”
Her words caught Dale off-guard. Staring at the girl looking up at him expectantly, he realized that no matter what the situation was—no matter if he didn’t believe children like her should be on the plane—the fact was she was here to stay, and there wasn’t anything else he could do but to help her. “You really think I’m big enough to take care of him?”
“Maybe.” Melanie shrugged. “And maybe not. Only one way to find out.” Taking out the device, she asked him to say cheese.
Dale flashed her a smile. Then he crossed his arms and tried to look tough for the next picture.
Captain Yuzhou tapped on the microphone three times. “Good evening,” he said. As he spoke, he could hear an echo of his voice coming from behind, rushing into the lounge from the corridor loudspeakers. He hesitated before repeating himself. “Good evening,” he said. “I don’t have to remind any of you of the seriousness of the situation we are all in.” He glanced down at the two sheets of paper lying side by side on the podium. “We are all that is left, and it is up to all of us to do what is necessary for those who have gone before us.” He paused. “Rest assured there is a plan and we are on schedule. We are currently following the other planes as they orbit the Earth looking for a spot. We have enough food on board to last us a week, two weeks if necessary, though we will not have to stay on board for that long. As I’m sure you all know, we plan on landing near the South Pole. However, I want to warn everyone that the chances of a hospital spot clearing up is small, and that the ship is stocked with the necessary agents to make your transitions as painless as possible.”
Melanie walked along a string of emergency lights, a gymnast on a balance beam, and she didn’t pay attention to the captain’s words. Whenever grownups began talking in a serious way, her brain would blank out. She did wonder why her parents had not decided to go with her, why every grownup but Dale looked sad in a way that she had thought only kids were capable of looking. This was the first time she was away from her parents, and despite the sadness she sensed from those around her, she found the freedom exhilarating. The only thing missing from the trip was her father, whom she had begged to come before boarding the plane—and she had thought her begging might have worked, too, since it had been apparent from her dad’s tears that he wanted to come along just as much as she had wanted him to. But, for the time being, Dale wasn’t a terrible substitute. She skipped along the corridor, and each time she stepped over an emergency light, her sneakers glowed like wet, radioactive frog skin.
Dale thought: What was he doing? He had never liked kids. He tended to be bored by everything that was cute and innocent, had told himself that the people who did were a few degrees from being pedophiles. So what was he doing now, walking with this white girl to her room to help her kill the monster hiding underneath her bed? When he was in his twenties, his first wife had left him because she had wanted kids. Now, at thirty-five, Dale told himself that he had made the right decision in not bringing another life into this world.
“Which one of these is yours?” he asked.
“Don’t worry. We’re getting close.” Melanie grabbed his hand and started pulling, but she couldn’t budge Dale an inch.
“Hold on, there,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“I thought you were in a hurry.”
“No need to get us killed. We’re on a moving plane.”
“We’re barely moving.”
“Look out here,” Dale said, pointing to the other planes hovering outside the circular window.
“Does it look like we’re not moving?”
“I can’t see.”
He picked her up with one arm and propped her feet on a ledge below the window.
“So many of them,” Melanie said. Then she turned to him. “Where are we going?”
“Antarctica,” he said. Now more than ever he felt lucky that he wasn’t the girl’s father. He could only imagine what it must feel like to explain to your child the present situation. He wondered how many kids on board who were Melanie’s age knew what was going on.
“At the bottom of the planet.”
“Oh.” Her parents had told Melanie that she was going on a trip to see penguins. It made sense that they were going to the bottom of the planet, since penguins liked to slide in the snow.
She jumped down and the two of them started walking again. In the air, Dale smelled cinnamon rolls coming from the lounge. “I don’t understand something,” Melanie said. “My second grade teacher, Mrs. Novicowski, told us the Earth was blue, but from up here in space it’s orange. Mrs. Novicowski lied to us.”
“People are liars,” Dale said. “Makes no difference if they’re your teacher or your parent. Everybody lies. Your parents probably lie to you all the time.”
“But why did she lie about the color? Why does she want us to think it’s blue?”
“Sometimes,” he said, “the reason for a lie is strange. Maybe it’s ‘cause she doesn’t want you to think the world ugly. What’s a prettier color, blue or brown?”
Like all lies grownups told, this one made sense to Melanie. “Blue.” She nodded. “Definitely.”
Yuzhou’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Redford, who had been in the communications room while the Captain gave his speech, informed the Captain that there was a very urgent message from shuttle-plane One, Miller Thompson’s ship. Yuzhou put his half-consumed cinnamon roll back on his plate, set the plate on the podium, and excused himself.
The corridors were empty. They were white and chilled artificially by the air conditioner, and Yuzhou felt goose bumps rising beneath his navy blue captain’s cap and starched uniform. “Be sure to turn up the heat when we reach the cockpit,” he told Lieutenant Redford. “Now what’s this emergency about?”
“Thompson wouldn’t give me the details without your presence,” Redford said, “but it seems like there’s been an accident. A jet of lava rose from Earth and hit one of the front planes. Thompson didn’t say what happened to it and he didn’t specify what precautions we need to take.”
Yuzhou nodded. Walking along the passenger corridors, he glanced into each compartment; nearly all of them were empty. The compartments were small, with one oval window each, a bunk bed taking up most of the space. They were not much smaller than his own quarters, the only difference being that his quarters had its own toilet and basin.
He was listening to Redford and glancing into the compartments and he came to a halt when in one of them he saw a large black man sitting on a bed together with a girl who appeared no older than eight. The girl looked frightened, and the man crouched down and peered under the bed, after which the girl still looked frightened. The two of them could in no way be related, and observing them, Yuzhou was amazed that even in the present situation, with so few people left, there were still criminals amongst humanity, those with no regard for morals. It saddened him to think that this man was also one of the last humans to be alive, that this man was also outliving his relatives.
“Should we tell them to join the others in the lounge?” Redford suggested.
Yuzhou didn’t turn to look at him. “No,” he said. “It doesn’t matter much now. And anyways, there are more pressing issues at hand.”
With that, the two men continued down the corridor until they reached the communications room.
“I told you it’s not there anymore.” Dale was on his knees, having just peeked and re-peeked under the bed four times. It was almost a workout, and he was not unpleasantly frustrated. “Look down and see for yourself.”
Melanie shook her head. She was not afraid anymore. She was only fearful of ghosts when she was alone, but she didn’t tell this to Dale. She knew her father and Dale couldn’t really chase the ghosts away: Ghosts could only be touched when they wanted you to touch them. She knew there wasn’t anything under her bed. But in her experience, it was better just to play along and pretend that you were still scared. In any case, she enjoyed the view she had now, of the clouds of Earth turning from brown to red. She saw the planet changing from a mango to a cherry. Suddenly, she was aware that something wasn’t quite right.
“Question,” she said.
“What is it now?” Dale was sitting down on the floor cross-legged.
“Why would Earth be brown or red if the sky and ocean are blue? Mrs. Novacowski had posters of the planets in our classroom, and Earth looked blue from those posters.”
Dale, who had been anticipating another question about ghosts, was caught off-guard. He didn’t understand why it felt so natural to hide the truth from this girl. Him, out of all people. He was a warrior, a conquering, terrorizing force in the ring. Had the amnesia made him soft, or had this always been a part of him? “The Earth changes colors,” he said, “like the way leaves do. As the seasons change, so does the color of the planet.”
Melanie looked at him side-eyed. “Why didn’t you tell me this before, when I said Mrs. Novacowski was a liar?”
“She’s still a liar. ‘Cause why wouldn’t she tell you about the changing colors?” Dale stood up and stretched his legs. “You believe me now? Why don’t you check under your bed so we can get out of here.”
He glanced out the window and was surprised to see that the color of the planet really was changing. Thick, bilious, smoke-like clouds were parting to reveal a fiery-red, lava-engulfed crust. The oceans, which had been hidden before under the brown clouds, were boiling, red steam rising as if the Earth were a giant kettle.
Melanie was staring out the window with him. “It looks bad,” she said. “Does it look like this every year when the seasons change?”
“Don’t be scared.”
“It’s all how it’s supposed to be.”
“Nothing to be afraid of at all.” Watching the way the planet changed, Dale wondered if he had been lied to all along. Was there really any hope of a safe landing spot in Antarctica? But why would the company lie to him? What incentives did they have? Money wasn’t worth anything anymore.
He began to feel like a kid himself, lied to by the corporation, by the media, and now by the captain, and he understood why it felt so natural to lie to this girl. All along, he was giving her the reassurance that he and every adult onboard desired.
The transmission from Miller Thompson’s ship came in distorted. In the communication room, Captain Yuzhou and Lieutenant Redford watched the screen as Thompson’s image blurred and refocused. There was a fire visible in the background, and the urgency in Thompson’s voice did not help to clear the static from the message.
“Say again, sir.” Yuzhou spoke into the monitor. “We didn’t quite catch it.”
“My plane got hit by a fucking lava jet!” The man in the monitor wore a Hawaiian shirt and his hands were covered in engine grease. “We lost most of our food and water. Shuttle-planes two and three were destroyed by debris thrown into space. All you asshole captains need to begin suicide protocols now. Otherwise”—his image broke away—“Shuttle-planes seven, eight, and nine are distributing the vials as we speak. You have to take control of your ship.”
“Say again, sir,” Yuzhou said, leaning closer to the microphone by the monitor. “Otherwise what? What would happen if we delay suicide procedures?” Yuzhou never fully trusted Miller Thompson, and the selfishness displayed by Thompson when he designated an entire shuttle-plane to himself and his family confirmed to Yuzhou that the man’s plan was to outlive all of humanity. Now that the situation had changed, this selfish man was still hoping that he’d be the last to go.
“Otherwise everyone is going to have a far more painful death,”—the image cut out again.
“I didn’t catch that, sir,” Yuzhou said.
“You need to start suicide procedures now,” Thompson said, and then the screen went blank.
Yuzhou looked at Lieutenant Redford. “What do you think we should do, Lieutenant?”
“It’s a direct order,” Redford said, “but our ship is not damaged and our supplies are intact.”
Yuzhou considered this. Pehaps he was looking at the situation in the wrong way. It might prove beneficial to follow suicide procedures. How long would a week’s supply of food and water for two hundred last for one person? If everyone else on the ship drank the vial and he was the only one on board, he could orbit the Earth for years. There was some victory, he considered, being the last human alive.
His thoughts were interrupted by Redford. “Look at shuttle-plane seven, sir,” the Lieutenant said. “It’s floating out of position.”
Through the curved glass of the cockpit window, Yuzhou saw shuttle-plane seven drifting out of its trajectory and down towards the atmosphere. Its emergency side doors were thrown open, and one by one bodies started streaming out into space like misshapen beads from a broken necklace. Moving at first in a straight line, the bodies slowly drifted away from each other so that there was no discernable pattern after a few seconds.
“Distribute the vials,” Yuzhou said. “I will make an announcement.”
Relieved that he no longer had to watch, the lieutenant rushed out and called for the head flight attendant.
“And this one here,” Melanie told Dale, “this one is a picture of me and my parents at the Great Wall of China. I was three and I don’t remember it, but my dad told me he had to carry me for half a mile.”
They were both sitting on the floor, their backs against the bottom bunk bed. Melanie was flipping through her gaming device, showing Dale her family’s photo albums.
Dale rested his arms on his knees. He remembered how sometimes, after a boxing match, his arms would grow so heavy that every drop of sweat felt like a marble. Win or lose, he would sit there on the bench with a towel over his shoulders and he would rest his arms on his knees and enjoy the exhaustion. What he had missed most about boxing during his state of amnesia was the tiredness afterwards.
“The Great Wall,” he said. “Well, I ain’t sure. I heard the Great Wall is the only thing on Earth you can see from space.”
“Really?” Melanie got up to try and see out the window, but Dale lifted her by the waist and sat her back down.
“Only in the summer,” he said, “when the clouds clear up and the Earth is blue again.”
Melanie went back to look at the photos in her gaming device. “I’m hungry. Let’s go and get some food.”
“In a minute,” Dale said. “I’m tired.” The truth was he didn’t care anymore to speak to anyone else on the plane. What difference would it make, he thought, if they weren’t going to land? He didn’t want Melanie to talk to the others, fearing she’d learn the truth. The fact that she didn’t know, that she could talk to him about her father as if he was still alive or the Great Wall as if it was still there, was the only thing keeping him alive.
Melanie was becoming bored again. She looked at Dale and he no longer seemed different from some of the other adults she had seen on the plane. She flipped close her gaming device and scampered up to the top bunk. Then she lay belly-down with her face by the circular window. Her dad, she thought, was somewhere down there on that red planet, probably making her mother pancakes for breakfast or reading the morning paper. Pancakes were Melanie’s favorite food, and she remembered again that in two days she would turn seven, and it made her sad that she wouldn’t be home to taste her father’s special blueberry and pomegranate pancakes on the morning of her birthday.
Dale stood up and turned to face Melanie on the upper bunk. “You’re going to sleep?” he asked.
“Nah, I’m just tired.”
“Me too,” Dale said, and turned around to face the window.
The Earth was still red, though rings of blue began appearing—like the spirals of a hurricane. They were the oceans trying to resettle. From his angle he could see half the moon on the horizon, and it gave him some comfort to see that it hadn’t changed. A moment later, his eyes fell back on Earth. He was sure nature would survive. In all that redness below, he was sure some plankton and fleas were thriving. And this, too, comforted him.
Then he noticed something strange. At first he wondered if he was seeing things, if he were seeing the ghost that Melanie was afraid of, creeping into his vision. He saw what appeared to be a man drifting down into the atmosphere. The body wore a black pinstriped suit and had its arms outstretched. Its eyes were open, and on its wrist a gold watch flickered. Then more bodies appeared, floating into his vision one by one, their limbs in odd crab-like postures. They were close enough to clip the wing of the ship. Then an entire shuttle-plane followed, coming into view in the distance, spinning in slow, careening circles.
Melanie’s camera drop from the bed to the floor. “What happened to them?” she asked.
Another plane drifted into view, closer to their plane but further up from the other one. Suddenly the doors on its side shot out like ears, and more bodies were jettisoned. With their limbs slowly changing positions, the bodies appeared almost alive, almost serene—a school of beluga whales swimming in a vast black ocean.
He stole a glance at Melanie, who was crying, and his mind raced trying to come up with any excuse at all.
About the Author: Michael X. Wang's fiction has appeared in The New England Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and Cimarron Review, among others, and they have won an AWP Intro Award and been featured in the Best American Short Stories's Distinguished Stories List. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Arkansas Tech University, revising a novel that is set during the Chinese Communist Revolution.