THE FOX AND THE DESERT • by Vashti Kashian-Smith

There’s six of us in the landing party. Six of us to one jeep.

Michael stays with the shuttle, preparing it for departure, in less than an hour, if we can manage it. The air is toxic but we don’t wear suits. Here, in the desert, the Earth’s atmosphere is okay in small doses.

I sit on the back-railings of the car, feeling the wind thread its way through my hair; the sand graze my face. I haven’t been on Earth in over eight years.

It feels good.

 

It’s Bonnie who navigates. I’m a botanist, not an astronaut. I look around myself. The Sahara desert.  Who would’ve thought that here – of all places – we’d find the last remnants of life on Earth?

That’s when I see it.

The fox.

 

“Guys, did you see that?”

Billie-Mae snaps her head around to look at me:

“See what?”

But it’s gone. Disappeared, behind the dunes, perhaps. Now I’m doubtful. Too doubtful to vocalise what I saw:

There are no more foxes.

 

We stop the jeep around a mile from our pick-up point. It wouldn’t do to go barging right in; we might miscalculate; we might squash it. We still could, with our boots. The satellite images are inaccurate. It could well be that this is the wrong place. We have an hour, to find it. Then fifteen minutes, to get back to the rocket.

Anything longer is unsafe.

 

“Have any of you ever heard about the Tasmanian tiger?”

It’s Adelaide who talks. I have. The rest of us haven’t. So I let her go on as we wander, single file, through the desert.

“It was extinct, long before the Great Extinction. Back in the twentieth century—”

“What did it look like?” Ricky asks.

“Like a tiger, of course. Except, it was a marsupial, not a big cat; it just looked like one because of convergent evolution. When two creatures fill the same niche in different environments. It was an apex predator—”

“Are you just spurting out big words?”

Astrid. I can tell she’s struggling in the heat. Way back when, she was from Sweden – or was in Norway? Somewhere cold, nevertheless. She wasn’t made for the desert.

“Anyway,” Adelaide goes on, “the point is, we killed it—”

“That’s debatable”, I chip in.

“—but, years and years and years — decades even — after its extinction there were still sightings being reported. Normally by tourists. Of a Tasmanian tiger roaming the Australian outback.”

“Hallucinations, no doubt,” says Bonnie, from the helm of the group.

“Or lies,” Ricky adds.

 

A few minutes later Bonnie stops.

“This is it.”

We take extra care, now, as we sift through the desert.

It’s Billie-Mae who finds it.

A single wizened green shoot, about the size of my fingertip, twisting its way through the sand to reveal the tips of two leaves so shrunken into themselves they look like needles. I won’t know what it is until I take it to the lab and analyse it.

“Couldn’t we just leave it here?” Billie-Mae asks. “Seems such a shame; there’ll be no life on Earth, again, if we remove it.”

“There’ll be no life on Earth, anyway, if we do not,” Bonnie says.

“It won’t survive for long,” I add. It’s already dying. Although I can see her point.

Still, I extract the shoot, taking care not to damage to roots, put it in a vial and follow Bonnie back to the jeep.

 

Bonnie’s speeding through the desert now; we’re cutting it close, but we will make it. The wind through my hair feels less pleasant.

I keep the vial in my pocket, cradling it in my hand.

We couldn’t take them with us. The animals, that is. And the only plants we took were the ones we needed, to eat. It just happened too fast. The fallout.

Now all we have is bottled DNA. A code, for if we ever return, and ever have the technology to repopulate the Earth…

It’s a shame, really.

I miss it.

 

“Do you think animals have ghosts?”

We’re close to the shuttle now. Close enough to breathe a sigh of relief. Astrid’s head is resting on my lap. She’s overheated, but she’ll live. It’s Billie-Mae who asks.

“It’s funny, we always talk about human ghosts. Evil. Benign. Benevolent. But we never talk about what happens to animals, after they die—”

“We should be glad there’s no such thing as ghosts”, says Bonnie, as the shuttle appears from behind the dunes. “Can you imagine what the world would be like; crawling with the ghosts of all the creatures we’ve wiped out?”

I can’t.

But out of the corner of my eye, I see it. The fox. At the crest of the dune, with its ears — each the size of its head — perked forwards, towards us, and its bushy black-tipped tail undulating in the wind as though it was made of nothing more solid than memories.

And then it’s gone.

 

In the shuttle, on our way back home I hold the vial close to my chest.

I shouldn’t; it’s fragile. But I can’t help it.

I consider telling the others about the fox. But in the end I decide to keep it to myself.

After all, it was just a mirage. It must’ve been.

There are no more foxes.


Vashti Kashian-Smith is a Welsh-born, Spanish-raised speculative fiction writer, currently based in England. When not writing she spends her time reading, studying, and worrying about unlikely apocalypses.


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