Josh Becker


       In the deep ocean waters off of Stewart Island south of New Zealand, a two foot long, gray and red squid swam lethargically backward, which is forward for a squid.  His ten tentacles drooped limply hindering him from holding a straight course.  That his own tentacles should have recently become a problem puzzled the squid.  Its tiny, rudimentary mind had rarely been puzzled and worked almost exclusively in directives: swim; mate; swim quickly and release black ink into the water, you're being pursued; something smaller than you is moving nearby, try and catch it; stop moving entirely and try to look like a piece of coral; and so on. 
       Lately, though, these directives had become muddled by various unfamiliar stimuli.  For instance, there was no reason to try and camouflage himself as coral since there didn't seem to be any coral visible anymore.  It was all covered with soil that had run off from the large land mass nearby—Stewart Island.  It was even worse near the South Island of New Zealand.  The squid had watched his entire life as soil had poured into the ocean from the land masses' rivers, and subsequently the squid's view had become dimmer, the water murkier, the vibrant colors of the coral covered over in rich brown dirt. 
       Now there was no colorful coral left as far as the squid could tell, but honestly it didn't care.  What the squid was mainly interested in was fish to eat—anything that was alive.  At this point the squid would happily attack and eat anything. 
       But there was nothing.  His strong eyes strained to see through the murk and his tentacles drooped lower.  The squid had never been this hungry before.  Not even when he decided to head south, away from the South Island toward Stewart.  Some deep, deep, ancient directive convinced the squid that the further south it swam the better the food supply would get.  
       But that hadn't been the case.  And now the squid had used up all his energy.  Lost in the murky gloom he began to die. 
       He remembered when he was young and the water was blue and schools of thousands of different kinds of fish, including the very tasty mackerel, swam past unaware of the squid's lurking, invisible, gelatinous presence until it was too late and he lunged, the suckers on his tentacles locking onto the prey, the always exciting struggle and his ten tentacles holding firm, wrenching the squirming fish into his squid's waiting, famished mouth . . . 
       The squid stopped sucking water into its body, ceasing to both swim and breath.  His lifeless body floated up to the ocean's surface. 
       The long black wings of an albatross barely moved as it glided effortlessly over the surface of the water.  Her white body appeared mottled and patches of feathers were missing.  Her black encircled eyes peered intently down at the ocean searching for the carcasses of anything that had died and floated to the top.  Simultaneously, the albatross kept alert for large swells and white caps which caused updrafts and kept her aloft.  
        She saw nothing resembling food in her flight path and decided to ascend and catch the overview.  At fifty feet she could see a vast expanse of brown water and nothing else.  She hadn't seen a dead fish in days and had lately taken to flying back to her nesting ground on a small atoll.  There she would feed off the dead flesh of other albatrosses, an act that was against everything she knew and understood, but she had done it several times nevertheless.  Now, however, the bones of the thousands of dead sea birds had been picked clean.  Oddly, there weren't even any insects left.  She didn't really like the taste of insects, but she'd have eaten them now if they were available. 
        So the one remaining albatross had waddled up the highest dirt slope of the atoll, used a large amount of her remaining strength and ran down the hill, spread her wings and sailed off over the ocean.  Being able to fly great distances with very little expended effort had kept the albatross aloft for three more days without food.  
        Now though even the minor wing adjustments she occasionally had to make to stay in flight were painful and difficult to get her weary brain to perform.  She could just not make the needed adjustment and go plummeting into the waves.  From up here at fifty feet it wouldn't be hard at all.  Just sort of let go and drop.  It wouldn't be so bad, not really, not as bad as having to stay in the air, fighting the wind, fighting hunger, fighting gravity.  
        In the corner of her eye the albatross saw a discoloration on the ocean's surface; a bobbing lump.  It could be seaweed, but it seemed round.  
        The albatross swooped down from the sky, it's beak jutting forward, its eyes straining to see what it was rushing toward.  Could it possibly be something edible?  That would almost be too much to ask at this point.  But as she got closer she identified it—a dead squid.  Food.  A whole meal.  Squids had those messy ink sacs, but so what.  
        As the albatrosses' sharp beak made contact with the glob of decaying jelly, she tried to make a hard pivot with her wings to send her back up, however her weakened muscles did not respond.  Instead, the large bird crashed headfirst into the ocean.  
        The albatross pulled its head above water and took a breath, her long wet wings sticking straight out to the sides.  She made many attempts at flight, but all were unsuccessful.  As wave after wave crashed over her head and she scarcely could get a breath in time, the albatross resigned herself to drowning.  She had only one last desire—find the  squid and eat it.  
        She looked right and left, forward and back and wait, there it was.  Using her last ounce of strength she swam toward the dead squid bobbing past.  Darting her head in the squid's direction the end of her beak snagged the gelatinous blob and lifted it up.  Sticking her beak straight up she opened her mouth and let the entire squid drop into her throat.  Just as she began to swallow—

         —The head of an enormous Leatherback sea turtle with its mouth wide open appeared in the water behind the albatross.  The turtle snapped its jaws shut on the albatross, engulfing it  and cleanly snipping off its head and feet, then the turtle submerged.  
        This Leatherback turtle was the oldest creature in the sea.  He was one hundred and fifty years old and weighed seventeen hundred pounds.  He preferred to chew and digest his food underwater, which he now did in spastic head thrusting movements, streams of albatross blood  trickling from the edges of his mouth.  
        He had seen a great deal in his days.  He had seen steel vessels float upon the water trailing nets and lines with sharp hooks.  This used to be his greatest threat and he had seen many of his kind slaughtered.  He himself had actually bitten one of these hooks a century ago, battled for hours and eventually broke the line.  A piece of metal still remained embedded in his mouth. But steel vessels and the lines and hooks slowly subsided and finally disappeared entirely.  
        That was about the time when the sea turned so hazy and brown that it became difficult  see and breath.  
        The huge turtle slowly flapped its paddle-shaped feet and swallowed the albatross.  Since it hadn't eaten in several weeks, this meal did little to satisfy it.  As his energy ebbed it became increasingly harder to swim in the direction he cared to.  The tide kept pulling at him, annoying him, whispering its song of death.  It nudged and caressed him nearer and nearer to the land.  He finally could not resist and gave in.  
        When the turtle washed up on shore he was dead.  
        One single horsefly flew up to check out the big smelly lump on the beach.  The horsefly had a dual purpose: first of all it was hungry and anything this pungent was undoubtedly edible, second she was pregnant and needed to lay her eggs.  The tiny little eggs in her belly should have already been laid.  They were mutating into larva and wriggling to get out.  Sadly, there didn't seem to be any place to lay them.  
        The horsefly's instincts told her to find a horse or a cow and lay the eggs in the hair on their legs or backs.  In the twenty-one days the horsefly had been alive she had not seen a horse or a cow, but her instincts also informed her that should she happen upon one of these animals she would know it.  Actually, the horsefly would happily lay her eggs in the hair of any creature at this point since the eggs within her demanded release.  
        Landing on the dead turtle's head, the fly began to feast.  It had been many days since she had eaten anything and she was famished.  So she ate and ate.  
        Sated, the horsefly crawled around the turtle's corpse.  Every now and then she would fly a foot or two, but with a stomach full of both food and eggs, it was much easier to crawl.  
        From the turtle's head to its tail, across its flippers, down its throat and into its guts.  When the horsefly finally reappeared landing on the sharp edge of the turtle's open mouth she was in deep trouble.  The larva were now mutating into maggots inside her body.  If she didn't rid herself of them within minutes she would die.  
        It had taken millions of years of evolution for the horsefly's genetic code to alter from simply being a fly to that of a horsefly.  This single horsefly could not fight that change.  A dead turtle was not a suitable place to lay her eggs.  The horsefly lit out in search of some hairy living creature.  
        Five minutes later the horsefly expired and plummeted to the stony ground.  The maggots  were all trapped inside the horsefly's body and began wriggling desperately trying to get out.  
        This minor commotion caught the attention of a dying army ant.  He was not only dying of hunger, but also because he didn't know where to go.  His instincts informed him that he was supposed to be part of a group.  Together with other army ants he could accomplish many things: they could ford rivers, cut down large trees, even kill reasonably large animals.  Alone, this army ant could do little else but die.  
        For weeks he had searched for a fellow army ant, or at least the scented trail of one, but he had had no such luck.  In his confusion and panic he had hardly noticed that there wasn't anything to eat until he had nearly starved to death.  
        But now, here was the sound of something going through its death throes.  
        The army ant came upon the dead horsefly and immediately climbed on top of it.  He felt the movement within the fly's body and a feeling of exaltation swept over him.  Here was a real prize; the queen would be pleased.  
        Clamping his jaw shut on the fly's leg, the army ant began to drag it toward home.  The  maggot-filled horsefly was at least four times heavier than the ant, but that didn't matter.  The ant would pull this fly home or die trying.  
        The big problem was, which way was home?  The ant pulled the fly fifty yards in one direction, over rocks of many sizes and the dried bones of many creatures, but never caught a scent of another army ant.  He turned ninety degrees and tried again.  After a very long way there was still no scent.  He turned yet again, came upon the long, brown, twisted remains of an  ice plant and, for no better reason that it went in some direction, began to follow it.  
        The dried up tendril of the ice plant led under a rock which was a half an inch off the ground.  The army ant began to drag the throbbing carcass of the horsefly under the rock, unaware that through the course of time all that supported this ten ton boulder was the  completely decayed tendril of the ice plant.  Disturbing this delicate equilibrium was simple.  The ten ton boulder shifted a quarter of an inch and flattened the army ant, but not the dead  
        The maggots trapped within the dead horsefly's body continued to squirm.  When the sun rose again the movement had stopped; the maggots were dead.  
        Following the several hundred yards of the crisp, brown ice plant's length, at the very, very end, there was still one tiny section that was green and still held a tiny bit of moisture.  
        This ice plant was the single oldest thing that ever lived on the Earth—seven thousand  years!  It began to grow when Babylon was just being settled in 4000 B.C.  This ice plant was now also the very last living thing on the entire planet: the single representation of all that was  ever said or felt or thought or done in the planet's history.  And whether it took ten minutes or ten months or ten millennia didn't matter, for who or what was there to see it?  Finally, the last minute sliver of green at the very end of the ice plant's tendril dried up and without a sound it died.  
        Earth was now a dead planet.  Just one more rock floating pointlessly in space.