The Tragedy of the Species
by Shannon Snyder
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Dad’s sleepless, panicked nights were not unfruitful, as he had planned an escape for our family. We were on the road before the broadcast of the touchdown was over. We drove north, headed to the wilderness in Alaska with our most valuable resources. I tried to help Dad load up the food, water, coats, and gasoline into our SUV as best as my tiny arms could manage, realizing that we were in a very big rush.
Although the alarm in his eyes was unmistakable, Dad looked down, smiled. “Such a sweet girl, Taylor. And so brave too.” He bent down on one knee and embraced me. “Do you think you can keep being brave for the rest of the day? We’re going on an adventure, and somebody has to be in charge of making up jokes for our drive. We all know you’re funnier than Mom and me. Do you think you can do it?” I grinned, nodded, my six-year-old mind not fully comprehending the gravity of this day.
The Swarm was so busy in southern California that we could effectively avoid them on our journey north. I told some of my best jokes; Mom turned in her seat and smiled at me through tears.
I exclaimed, “Mom, jokes don’t make people cry!” This made her throw her arms around me.
“Taylor,” she sighed, “always the joker.” This day in the car would be one that I would always remember: my family all together, as if we had our own little world.
However, many other people had the same idea to hide in the northern wilderness. Somewhere in Oregon, Dad told me to sleep, and I did. Suddenly, I was woken up by a harsh shredding sound and a jolt that sent me crashing into the seatback in front of me. One of the cars in front of us had blown a tire, spun out of control, and had hit the passenger side of our SUV as Dad swerved.
I remember seeing trails of blood running down Mom’s forehead and the bridge of her thin nose, her pretty sapphire eyes lifelessly staring forward. We had a small burial on the side of the road, and through tears Dad pushed us forward.
Our SUV was done for; we walked along the highway for miles until we stumbled upon an abandoned vehicle. The one silver lining was that Dad could hotwire the car; I reflected on this later in life with amusement that maybe he was spending all that time in the lab learning to hotwire cars instead of synthesizing chemicals!
Once we were in the car though, I saw my father break down for the first and only time, his head resting on the steering wheel, his chest heaving with sobs. I was scared, in tears myself, staring at him. He reached into his coat pocket, silently took out the gold watch Mom always wore. Dad handed it to me, nodded when I hesitated, and I put it around my wrist. It was much too large for my six-year-old wrist, but I held onto it to keep it in place.
He explained how important it was that we remember Mom every day, but today we needed to get to safety. The spontaneous, unsystematic man that reminded me of Flubber was gone; I had never seen my father so serious and focused on getting us to Alaska. I stared forward, feeling like a shell of a person.
We sat in our new vehicle for hours that seemed more like weeks, and mourned together. Driving was simply not an option that day. Eventually, the energy I exerted through my continual tears and the stress of not knowing what would happen next lulled me to a restless sleep.
After the mourning, we continued our journey in silence. We arrived in a small Alaskan town named Talkeetna, and set up a homestead. Eventually, news came through from underground rebels and spies. The Swarm enslaved or killed everyone not in hiding.
The takeover was swift, but luckily information about the aliens flowed swiftly too. They clearly had no eyesight, but found their way around using a type of unique echolocation. Their old world was dying and unusable, and Earth was the next best thing. However, Earth was missing one thing the Swarm needed, a gas we named tetradoxine.
This mystery element was the key ingredient that was present in the atmosphere of the Swarm’s old world but was not found in ours. In order to breathe indefinitely outside of their ship without being poisoned, tetradoxine needed to be synthesized and released.
However, they did have reserve tanks of their old atmosphere in their major spacecraft, allowing each alien to “recharge” after about half a day outside. If one failed to return in time, it meant suffocation. Sooner or later, their reserve tanks would run out. It was like one big game of who could hold their breath the longest.
The Swarm forced chemists, engineers, scientists, and kids with potential into labs to try and make tetradoxine, using the threats of torture or killing their families. The aliens were smart too; they learned our language and all of its complexities quickly, and probably found the scientists through scientific journals.
I know they must have looked for Dad too, given his well-known and widely-celebrated skills of chemical synthesis, but we slipped through their claws in our remote hideout. This synthesis was apparently a very difficult one, and it took nearly twenty years for the scientists to even make progress. However, the Swarm was close to reaching its goal.
In the next two decades, Dad and I had managed to build and settle into our homestead and perhaps even prosper, given the conditions. A rift had grown between us though; I harbored resentment for Mom’s death, and I spoke to him using as few words as possible.
Dad treated me with much more kindness than I really deserved, still laughing at my sarcastic remarks meant to hurt him, still calling me his sweet girl. Even though I was long past the periodic table, every night after dinner he taught me what he knew about chemistry. In our crappy little makeshift lab we made special explosives and bombs.
I still have Mom’s gold watch, now stopped, on my wrist. In any other time we would have been arrested as terrorists, but this was a world infested by aliens, for God’s sake! We wouldn’t wait around, unarmed, for them to come and find us.
By this time the Swarm had long expanded its control to the entire planet. There were fleets sent out to India, Australia, London, Geneva, and many other places.
Some countries had tried to fight back, without success; Russia was now no more than an abandoned frozen tundra; Japan collapsed into the sea; the people of Western Europe were hiding in underground sewers. With each new broadcast we heard of another city falling and their people being decimated. The tension grew and my hope for a future shrank.
The sense of panic never left Dad, even if we were relatively safe in Talkeetna. The obsessive scientist returned after a few years of working on explosives. It wasn’t just enough to make weapons that could mortally wound the Swarm, he wanted to make tetradoxine, and a detection device for it.
I sensed a lot of buried anger in him too; he needed to exploit the one weakness of the aliens, and put his chemical knowledge to full use. When I was twenty-four, I walked into the lab one day to discover jubilance spilling off his shoulders. His eyes were alight with a glee I had never seen in him.
“Taylor, I’ve done it! I’ve synthesized tetradoxine!” he exclaimed, almost childlike.
I broke out of my cold outer shell and gave him my congratulations, “Dad, that’s amazing! I can’t believe you’ve done it. The Swarm has spent their whole time on Earth working on this!” I even dared a joke, “So maybe now that you’ve done it, maybe you can get out of the lab? You could really use some sun!”
This made Dad chuckle to himself, and I smiled. Together, we synthesized more of it and tested bombs that were sensitive to the gas; they would detonate upon detection.
In my time outside of the lab, I was in charge of my own little projects to keep myself sane. I found that I had a natural talent for golf, and practiced my swing on the rooftop of our home. I kept a garden in the warmer months, and learned how to trap animals throughout all seasons. I even started to teach some of the local kids how to read and write, which I know would have made mom happy. This all became routine after a while, interrupted only by new broadcasts of the Swarm.
Over the years, there have been a few travelers who have made it to Talkeetna. One was an army corporal named Davis, who came to our door dirty and ragged, his terror revealing itself in the jumpy way he reacted to the slightest of commotions.
Davis asked to stay with us. He hadn’t found anyone willing to take him in, and we learned how valuable he was to us. He not only brought guns, but had an incredible knowledge of survival skills, battle tactics, and technological repairs.
“Shoot, man,” Davis exclaimed at our tiny radio one day, “We gotta fix that up. You know we gotta keep on top of what the Swarm is doing.” And thus, our radio and fireplace and lab stations all got a nice makeover.
Davis also had a talent for breaking up the monotony of life on the homestead with his constant replaying of dirty jokes. “Hey, Ray, what’s the cheapest meat you can buy?” My father rolled his eyes, a smile creeping up. “Deer balls. They’re under a buck!” Davis roared with laughter, all of us laughing more at his enjoyment than his joke, even Dad. That was how our refurbished family worked, and I was content.
A year ago, life was quietly moving along, when another traveler, named Zeke, showed up. He was from Houston and just a few years older than I was. He was strong, resilient, and had a way of instilling hope in people. There was an immediate attraction between us, friendly at first; I taught him how to golf, and he told me his hopes for a future without aliens. It wasn’t long before the attraction grew to something more.
He told me once that my eyes shine like the Tenerife Sea. “Some song I heard a long time ago that you remind me of. Just the name Tenerife makes it sound beautiful, but I know that it can’t be as beautiful as you. Don’t know where it is, but when this is all over, I’ll take you there with me.”
I knew he meant it. I never said it out loud, but I dreamt of Zeke nearly every night.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Shannon Snyder