How do you spent your last days, hours or minutes in a world of vacuum?
There’s a few silver linings in all this. I think the original saying had something to do with clouds. That part’s no longer applicable, of course.
For example, so much of my life until today was just one long, tedious struggle against entropy. Against the slow but steady breakdown of everything I worked so hard to build up, like painstakingly removing individual grains of sand from the bottom half of an hourglass and moving them back to the top.
That’s all over now. I suppose poverty and hunger are as well. For that matter, today is the day that the shining dream of world peace has finally been achieved. I just wish there was somebody to celebrate with.
Instead I’m trapped in this blasted tin can, peering out the little window at a jet black sky, not a single star to be seen. A “hyperbaric chamber”, I think. I’d only ever heard of these being used for diving before my doctor sent me to spend the night in one.
I can’t say as I feel much better, though I doubt that’s the chamber’s fault. There’s something about the certain knowledge that you’re witnessing the extinction of humanity which ruins your appetite. That, and the realization that my last meal will be the meager tray of hospital food that the nurse slid to me through a little double doored airlock just before it happened.
All of a sudden, the sky turned black. Just like that. I was lucky enough to be looking out the window through the little porthole in the side of the chamber at the exact moment, though perhaps lucky isn’t the word I want.
Didn’t register at first. Thought maybe I was seeing it wrong. I still didn’t understand what was happening as a distant airliner fell out of the sky. Nor when the couple walking by the waterfront a hundred feet or so from the hospital collapsed, clawing at their faces.
Birds also fell, one of them near enough to the window that I could see its eyes bug out, and most of the blood in its body boiling out its twitching, wide open beak. At the same time there was this violent wind...indoors.
I felt none of it inside the sealed chamber, pumped up to several times sea level air pressure, but I could see the effects making a mess of the hospital room. Papers swept about as if in a hurricane, which were stacked neatly on the counter a moment prior. The windows bulging outwards, then bursting in a shower of shimmering glass shards.
Then the glass of water the nurse forgot to send in with my meal began to boil away into the vacuum. I think that’s when it dawned on me what’d occurred. Struggle as I might, I cannot clearly recall the nurse’s face when she barged into the room.
I remember her hair, though. Whipped about, this way and that, like a television news reporter covering a record breaking windstorm. She kept pounding on the wall of the chamber as she collapsed against it. The metallic, resonating impacts continued for most of a minute...but grew progressively weaker until there was only silence. Perfect, everlasting silence possible only in the total absence of air.
She’s still down there, slumped against the chamber. I feel certain of it. Mercifully, I can’t see her through the porthole due to the narrow viewing angle. I don’t know what I’m afraid of, it’s not like she’ll decompose. It’s not like that collapsed couple outside, or anybody else, will ever decompose.
Kept perfect forever. Pristine, preserved, vacuum sealed. It still feels like a bad dream. Everything outside is still so colorful. Moreso than before if anything, without an atmosphere to scatter the light.
But oh, that contrast. That stark, absolute contrast. Of the green grass against the pitch black, starless sky...before the unfiltered sun started turning it brown. Or the trees, or the big colorful fiberglass ice cream cone atop the white truck at the far side of the lake, just barely visible from this vantage point.
The landscape looks like a paper cutout superimposed against the most intense, pure darkness conceivable. Gone is the soft, gentle gradient between sea level and space. Is there even still an ocean to measure that by? How long will that much water take to boil away? Hundreds of years? Thousands?
I don’t begin to understand how any of this happened. That’s what keeps me from fully accepting it. Every time I lay down to sleep, best I can in the cramped confines of this meager pocket of trapped air in an airless world, part of me expects to wake up to blue skies. Clouds. Birds singing, planes soaring overhead.
If there was a little television or something, maybe I could find out...but then, who could still be broadcasting? How many like me can possibly be out there, coincidentally sealed inside something airtight for whatever reason when humanity’s final moment arrived?
Astronauts. Astronauts! There have to be some aboard the space station, right? How I wish I had a radio or something. At this point with so little life remaining, I would gladly trade some of those hours to hear another voice. Anybody’s voice, lying to me...telling me this isn’t the end. That somehow, things will be alright.
My phone, too. If there’s still internet service, I might read the final thoughts of the last generation, immortalized. Frozen in silicon, even after the lights all go dark. Wind power is out, obviously. Hydro power is out. Solar still works. I assume nuclear still works.
It will all go dark soon enough, though. I just wish I knew why. It’s the senselessness of how the human journey has come to an end that rips at my insides, as abruptly and violently as the sky was ripped away.
No holy book predicted this, that I know of. There was nothing in the way of a warning. No alien invasion, no speech from the president, or commandments from the sky to build an ark. One moment the sky was there...then it just...wasn’t.
I wish I could say it will all be figured out eventually, but there’s nobody left to do that. Was I spared? Am I one of the lucky ones? Somehow I don’t feel that way. ...Nuclear submarines! Those ought to be alright for awhile.
They make their oxygen from seawater, don’t they? They’ll starve long before they suffocate. I wish I knew how many were out there on patrol when it happened. For some reason knowing the exact number of remaining humans would be a comfort.
My stomach growls, reminding me that my own lifespan is also measured in food remaining on that tray. I nibble at the brownie, last one I’ll ever taste. I’m painfully hungry. It’s an alien sensation. I never knew what actual, desperate hunger is before this.
I always just ate the moment I felt the smallest pangs of hunger. Never giving any thought to how bad it can get. My mouth is unbearably dry as well, the moisture in the food my only source of water. I look longingly out the porthole at the glass on the cabinet, but of course it’s bone dry.
I wonder if those astronauts will return to Earth. Where else can they go? Just to roam this abhorrent...vacuum Earth...in their space suits, until their oxygen runs out. I begin to wonder how long that would take. The printed labels inside this chamber say it has 72 hours of backup O2 and sodalime, for removing CO2.
I’m on day two now. I can’t see the clock from this angle. I never realized before today how much I relied on the way the sky looks in order to get a feel for what time of day it is. Just before the nurse sealed me in this thing, I remember she mentioned something about a clown.
The sort that comes to cheer up terminally ill children. She mentioned something about a large order of balloons for him to hand out. Despite myself, I laughed as I imagined all of the balloons bursting at once when it happened, then falling limply to the floor all around his body like a bouquet of wilted flowers.
I scanned the city in the distance for any indications of fire from the plane crash, but of course there couldn’t be. If by some miracle the cabin remained intact, everybody onboard would be in the same situation I am. Having the same grim thoughts about what to do with their dwindling time.
I suppose any planes that were taxiing on the tarmac at the airport would be fine...though what awaits the passengers in the coming hours would be worse by far than the comparatively merciful, rapid death of anybody caught outside.
I carefully savor the last of the peas and corn, which I’d originally planned to scoop into the trash when given this meal yesterday morning. What a difference a black sky makes to your perspective...to your priorities.
I then feel the ground shake beneath me. Gently at first, but the tremors grow stronger and stronger. Earthquakes? Too rhythmic, surely? It feels like something’s getting closer. I cower within my little oasis until the tremors begin to weaken. Soon, everything is once again unnaturally silent and still.
There’s another chamber across from mine. Empty, as luck would have it. I catch myself wishing there were somebody inside. Just someone to look at. To smile at, to cry with, though there’s no way we could talk.
Anybody at all. My worst enemy. Just so I wouldn’t have to face the end alone. More completely alone than I’ve ever been in my life. I fiddle with the emergency oxygen mask dangling from a hook on the chamber’s inner wall.
That won’t save me, will it? Anything I inhale into my lungs will only make them burst. It’s not even the lack of oxygen that’s the problem, but the lack of pressure. I know it’s not like what happens in space movies, but that doesn’t change anything. I wouldn’t make it far.
There’s a toilet, at least. I have no idea how it can flush without compromising the higher pressure in here. Just that when I flushed it for the first time after the sky turned black, the bowl did not refill with water. It just makes a gurgling sound.
I’m not yet desperate enough to drink out of there anyway, even if I could. As the sun slowly crawls overhead, it eventually reaches just the right spot that a beam of sunlight shines in through the porthole.
I withdraw from it the moment I feel the scalding heat on my arm. There’s undoubtedly radiation to contend with as well, though in here I’m well shielded from it. Every possible option that occurs to me is stuck down just as quickly.
What’s the point? What am I hoping will happen within the next 48 hours? Rescue? By whom? There’s no reasoning with my instincts, though. However I wrestle with my primal urge to stay alive, I cannot subdue it.
I wish I could lay in the grass one last time and watch the clouds roll by. My body tenses up with anguish at the thought. Just one more time, feeling the soft blades of grass on my legs, neck and shoulders. Pointing out clouds which resemble dragons, ships, or whales.
In a fit, I twist the emergency pressure release. I hear a loud hiss, and feel an immediate change in my inner ear as the internal pressure begins dropping at the maximum safe rate. I pace back and forth, tugging at my hair, agonizing over whether this is really what I want to do.
I can’t just hop back inside if I change my mind. There’s enough gas to refill the chamber, but I’d be dead before it got back up to pressure. What else is there to do, though? What else is left? The sky is black. That’s the hard truth of it. The sky is black, and I’m out of options.
Even when the pressure reads one atmosphere several hours later, I can’t open the door. The differential between the inside and outside pins it shut. I scream at it, as if that will somehow loosen it up. I throw myself at it, shoulder first, over and over.
Each time the door budges slightly and I hear a brief, loud suction sound. Halfway between a burp and a hiss. Some air escapes during the split second when I run into the door! I redoubled my efforts, slamming into the door harder and harder until my shoulder throbs.
Doesn’t matter. Nothing will ever matter again after this. Finally, the last impact budges the door enough that I can hold it open by about a centimeter. The rest of the air escapes in a powerful gust, tossing my hair like the nurse’s.
My hospital gown at last stops fluttering once the last of the air finishes rushing out. Every inch of exposed skin hurts. I can see my veins bulging beneath my skin, and feel growing pressure behind my eyes. I close them and fumble around.
My hand brushes up against something soft. It’s...hair? I open my increasingly bloated, bloodshot eyes. The nurse. Her skin is a mess, red and blistered from the sun. There are bloody spots all over her clothing wherever veins burst beneath it.
Not much time. I just want...I want to choose how it ends. I knelt, then lifted the stiff body of the nurse in my arms. I then stepped outside through the shattered remains of the window, indifferent to the sharp little bits sticking into the bare soles of my feet.
Twenty seconds? Fifteen? I knew it would be like this. But I only felt more and more certain that this is how I wanted it to happen. Once outside, I glanced around and noticed a van parked just in front of the hospital entrance which read “Salvador’s party supplies”. The driver was slumped over the steering wheel.
A man dressed up as a party clown laid in a pitiful, technicolor heap just inside the hospital entrance, surrounded by the shredded remains of burst balloons. Even now, I am still able to smile. Even now.
I can feel the strength draining from my sweaty, sunburnt body as I trudge out onto the grassy expanse overlooking the lake. I remember watching the leaves of the nearby tree dancing in the wind on the day I arrived. Motionless, now.
I lay the nurse down in the grass, then ease myself down next to her. She might’ve been pretty before. Looks like it. Must’ve been a caring person too, if she went into nursing. How I’d have liked to say something poetic to her just now.
Instead I took her delicate, sunburnt hand in mine, and stared up at the empty black sky. A single tear escapes, then boils away into the vacuum.