Accidents happen on the frontier. People heading out to make a new life on the frontier get stranded. Often, in the absence of a civilizing influence, they do whatever they can to survive. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Last Taste of Manna
by T.J. McIntyre ©2008
Multicolored orbs descended upon Staff Sergeant Aaron Mose. He held his arms up to his face, trying to block their ethereal light that burned into his retinas. But still they fell from the sky.
He had felt this alien rain, had suffered this same predicament every moondown since the day he found himself alone.
At first Sergeant Mose had still had his crew. They kept warm with the help of the hydrogen heater until they ran out of fuel cells. But even then, after the heater had become nothing more than an obsolete and cold piece of steel, they had found warmth with each other.
They had loved one another out of desperation, boredom, and general frustration. There was no distinction between sexes as true gender had been nonexistent since the True Equality Revolution during the previous century. Like hermaphroditic frogs, most people just took on the gender most useful in their present circumstance.
The stranded crew had felt themselves united by a bond closer than family. They were closer than lovers. Their bond was one of survival. Their love – arguably not romantic, but necessary – had tied them together and helped each other hold on. They gave each other a reason to survive. More than that, they had helped each other laugh.
But the community began to falter. First it was Eve. She began vomiting her small portions of freeze-dried fish and algae. The food was notoriously unpalatable, and each of them struggled to keep it down at times, but they did. Tasty or not, the packets were their lifeline.
The group made a decision not to give her any more, being unable to waste the precious nutrients on one who seemed unable to hold them down.
She wasted away before their eyes. Her weak and shriveling arms reached to them for compassion. Under Mose’s leadership, they turned their backs. She called out to them, and they ignored her pleas. Their laughter – when they were able to laugh at all – sounded hollow. There was little mirth with her skeletal body nearby serving as a constant reminder of their own frailty. By the time Eve gave up and fell asleep for the last time, the jokes were few and far between.
Then came the question of what to do with Eve’s body. This created their first and only political division. Democracy and civility faltered in the face of a dwindling food supply. Mose proposed the unthinkable, and a few of the others followed.
The group broke apart. Mose and his followers took the body by force and cut it up with torn shards of steel pilfered from the obsolete heater.
Disgusted, the others went away, taking half of the remaining provisions. They worked their way over the rocky wasteland to hide behind some boulders, blinding themselves to the ugly truth which Mose promised might bring their salvation.
“Eat of her flesh, for it is life,” he had told his followers before their first meal together from this new food supply. They took their squares of flesh and placed them on their tongue. Each began to chew, eyes closed, savoring the fatty tissue of their onetime lover and friend.
“Drink of her blood, for it is our salvation,” he said passing around a plastic thirty-ounce handled mug. Each took a sip in turn and a little color lit their cheeks shortly afterwards. They each claimed it must have been the iron.
This became their ritual until Eve’s remains were gone. Not having anything to waste, they even soaked her bones to make a weak stew with water filtered down from the thin atmosphere.
With her body gone, they used their remaining provisions. Soon, the remnants of their meals floated on alien breezes across purple rocks. Silver plasticlean packets whirled together until they found their final resting places plastered in the deep crevices of flaking, powdery boulders.
With their food supply extinguished, the tentative bonds between the survivors began to fray. The laughter ceased. Their merriment replaced by a cold silence: the silence of the practical when reality digs its talons into one’s back and lifts them up high enough to see the futility of the big picture.
Fights broke out. Harsh words and raised voices drowned out conversations.
Mose knew it was time to step up. He had led these nomads to this alien planet and it would only be a matter of time before they turned all their negative hostility towards him.
He called a meeting and climbed up a boulder. Purple flakes dusted his salt and pepper hair. He stood tall, a staff of steel from their ship in his hand. The light of the large yellow moon shone behind him. He cast a shadow over his followers both tall and deep.
“My friends, we’ve fought among ourselves too long. We hunger, but we have food and life readily available. Our former comrades, the weak, those who refused to dine with us those many weeks ago hide behind their boulders. What purpose do they serve? They starve like us, but will they be willing to eat?”
A chorus rose from his followers. Each agreed they would not eat.
“Who knows how many of them have fallen? With their weakness, they would be sure to break easily and fall. What would the weak do with their fallen? What have they done? Left their dead to be devoured by this purple dust? Fed the fallen to this dead planet? Have they allowed their blood to fall into these shifting sands to dry up and blow away? They waste their manna.”
Grumbles filtered up to him. He saw tears in a young man’s eye.
“The thought of such a waste saddens me, too. But what angers me more is that this waste is preventable. We should not be hungry. There is some life yet on this planet. We must herd it all together so that we can feast on the fallen and find life through their death. We must collect the bodies of their fallen.”
“But what if none have fallen?” a single voice said, making its way to him from the murmuring crowd.
“They will!” Mose replied, thrusting his staff deep into the boulder with a violent thrust. A cascade of chalky purple rock fell down upon his followers.
His followers cheered. Their negativity replaced by a dark new hope.
Violence erupted. Mose expected this and was most surprised by his own reaction. Former friends, former lovers, they were just fuel promising a temporary respite from the unquenchable thirst he had acquired shortly after that first taste of Eve’s flesh. He felt a rush as his staff thudded against protesting bodies.
This other branch of survivors had not been hard to find, and they were even easier to capture. Those who survived had mostly withered away. They were too weak to struggle. Mose and his followers tied them up.
The weak refused to disclose the location of their dead at first. But Mose pulled them away from the rest, one by one, to be tortured behind boulders, out of sight. The others could hear the screams of their comrades, but couldn’t know what was being done to them. It was only a matter of time before one broke down and released the information Mose needed: the location of the graveyard.
It was in a large dusty clearing. Small rocks marked the graves, each etched with a name and a mission identification number.
The mission identification numbers were a reminder of the promise this new world held. Mose had been handed down the mission by Chief Corporate Engineer Abrams himself: an almost unheard of honor. He had taken the mission. He was proud to be part of what C.C.E. Abrams swore would be his ticket to fame and a place in the history tablatures for generations to come. The probe, Adam 1, had been coordinated to rendezvous with a small purple moon that had a breathable atmosphere. The oxygen content was just a few millidecels lower than the levels of the orb station. This moon orbited the dark side of a larger moon which in turn circled around a gassy giant of a planet that was just a few clicks below being classified a sun. The whole system circled a distant red star which was little more than a speck in their new world’s night sky.
The promise of a world without enclosures — without steel-girded plasticene bubbles, without the constant thrum of artificial atmospherics — had been more than enough to seduce Mose. He would lead his crew into a new promised land: a land where men and women could breathe freely in an open atmosphere, a world outside of the massive starships which transported the remnants of humanity to the far borders of space seeking out a new safe haven. The promise of feeling earth and soil beneath him once again after so long fueled his decision. The possibility of finding new flora and fauna in an untouched Eden led him forward.
Their probe hadn’t been able to handle the entry into the dense atmosphere. It had fallen like a meteorite and the impact had crushed all Communiqué equipment. Mose had once promised another probe would come, but it never did. Mose wasn’t surprised. C.C.E. Abrams wouldn’t want this failure on his record. Their mission would be classified, locked up, declared a failure, and any electronic trail would be dispersed into background radiation on the invisible Communiqués which connected the fragmented remains of humanity after the EarthFall thirty years before.
The memories of that once bright promise enraged him, and Mose crushed the chalky grave markers to powder while yelling up to a silent yellow sky. He was free to roam in this new land. But that freedom came with a cost. He realized the cost even then, well before he found himself alone with the other race of creatures which didn’t show themselves until Mose was alone.
Mose and his followers ate the bodies they found in the dusty graves. Once the corpses were ingested, they hunted down and killed the weak, sometimes devouring them before the life had left their eyes as a hungry pack sharing an unspeakable communion.
Once that mission was gone, once there was nothing left — no weak left to prey upon — they turned on each other. They hid from one another, sleeping the light sleep of the hunted. One by one they extinguished their living flames.
An inner scavenger emerged from inside Mose before he went into hiding. He pilfered and stole under cover of night. He slept during the day in the high places, in rocky crags with makeshift alarm systems: bones strung along lines of decomposing ligament and moon-bleached strands of fabric.
From time to time, an unwary survivor tripped the alarms. Each time, Mose would pounce on them, utilizing a curved and serrated fragment of steel from the ship as a weapon. This same piece of steel served as a carving knife to butcher the remains into manageable pieces which would then be cured and stored in his hiding places.
He attacked the survivors, one by one, cutting marks into his forearm afterwards to keep track of their number. The marks went up towards his elbow as the population shrank. He had been anticipating the last crew member for some time before their appearance.
The last crew member had not tripped the alarm. It was only by chance that Mose knew of this one’s approach. A crumble of dust fell on his head from the rocks above. He looked up and saw a form block the moonlight shining down. He held up his arms as the form plummeted down towards him. The crew member’s eyes were glazed over, and the length of their thin body pulsed with wiry muscles.
He remembered this crew member’s embrace when this one fell upon him. Mose remembered the warmth with which they had held each other before Eve had fallen. There was no love left for either of them.
If he had not been alerted by the chalky dust of the rocks, if he had not looked up, he would not have survived. This other crew member would have thrust a piece of steel into the back of his neck. Thanks to that chance warning, his reflexes had triggered. After catching the crew member with a brief embrace, he pushed the writhing body up against the rocks, triggering a cloud of dust. He reached around the struggling frame and grabbed fragments of the soft stone. He took this handful of dust and threw it into crazed eyes.
Mose’s attacker screamed and bit at him, blindly thrusting the knife at his side. The blade glanced off his skin but the cuts were minor. Mose was able to pin his attacker up against the rocks by the neck with his forearm. He pressed forward feeling the stone give way a little as he pushed. He heard a snap as the crew member’s neck broke. The attacker slumped forward and grew still.
Mose stepped back and watched the body fall to the dust. After months passed, all remaining traces of his onetime comrades dissipated. Their footprints disappeared from the shifting windswept sands. The only proof of their existence was the burned out crater where they had crashed, the cracked hull of the ship, and Mose’s slowly diminishing stockpile of cured flesh and bones.
The orbs came down night after night. Terrifying him. Mose tossed and turned trying to sleep, but the orbs lit up the lids of his eyes. He saw shadows and faces, heard the laughter of friends before they became food, felt the touch of lovers long devoured, and was haunted by dreams of life back in the enclosed safety of the orb station. He heard the rustle of life and humanity in his dreams at night, making every day harder to face than the one before.
Silence blew across the rocks and plains as incessantly as the wind. It chilled him deeper than any breeze.
He began to talk to the orbs, looking for any sort of companionship, but they never spoke back. They danced the dance of globular auroras taunting him with the presence of their community. He could never belong to such an alien society.
Even if he could, would he want to?
He would want to, he decided, but a pang of guilt stabbed him with that thought. Alone now, he only felt grief and guilt. He ate the cured flesh nightly wondering if the orbs knew what he did. As he chewed his last taste of manna, he wondered if such a taboo existed in their society. He imagined it did. He liked to think humanity was alone in the universe regarding their ability to destroy themselves.
T.J. McIntyre writes from his home in Alabaster, Alabama. His stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications including Escape Velocity, The Birmingham Arts Journal, Flashshot, and The Swallow’s Tail. In addition to writing, he also edits Southern Fried Weirdness, a publication specializing in Southern speculations.