The Fires of Titian
By Chris Costello
The world was burning.
Gabriel gazed out across the scorched landscape, a sight he had seen far too many times. By now, he was numb to it.
An alien (Though Gabriel supposed that he was an alien in this circumstance) came forward to greet him. It had green skin, as well as a round body and angular limbs. It gurgled at Gabriel, and the universal translator clipped to his belt worked through the language. That was a waste of time. He’d been on enough ruined worlds to know the score by now. The survivors, when there were any, only ever had one question.
“What are you?”
“A visitor.” Gabriel replied.
The air smelled of seared flesh and stone, a world that was in the throes of death. In the distance, the crumbling remains of a city sunk into the earth. It might have been a sight to behold in its heyday, but now it was only bones. The corpse of a fallen civilization.
“Can you help us?” The alien asked.
Gabriel frowned. This was another question they always asked. “No, it is too late.”
“You’ve destroyed your world already. You’ve used it all up.”
Another world had been consumed by the plague of life. Gabriel was beginning to hate it all. Even the goddamned microbes.
“Can you take me with you, then?” There was a kind of hungry desperation in the alien’s squeals.
Gabriel put his hand on the pistol at his hip. Sometimes, an alien would be foolish or crazy enough to attack him. He couldn’t blame them.
“It’s always the same.” He said, more to himself than the alien. “I am always too late. Hundreds of worlds, all consumed by fire and poison. Devoured, split open like cadavers.”
“Then why do you come?” The alien demanded harshly.
Gabriel didn’t know the answer to that. But he knew that it wasn’t his job to save these people. This alien was an anomaly. All the survivors were. None of them were supposed to exist, and there was nothing he could do to help them now. The universe wouldn’t allow him to.
He turned towards his ship, whose sensors had confirmed everything long before he had arrived. There was no reason to land except that he had to see it with his own eyes.
“Please.” The alien’s voice was hoarse. “Take me with you, back to your world. Study me, lock me in a zoo. I don’t care. I’ll do anything to get away from here.”
“There’s no world to go back to.” Gabriel said. “It’s always the same. Every world is the same.”
“But-” The alien halted his plea and let out a deep sigh. Finally, Gabriel thought, the alien understood that it was all hopeless.
The last human boarded his vessel and set out to the stars. Maybe, he mused, the next world could be saved. It was what he always told himself. And sometimes, when he was alone in the void of space, he even believed it.