Science Fiction

To The Last Man

By Al Onia
Oct 1, 2020 · 4,260 words · 16 minutes


From the author: A one-man clean-up crew is charged with removing the last humans from Earth. He finds more than a recalcitrant straggler, he finds perspective.


 

      The last man on Earth stepped out of the low-altitude skimmer on the shore of the Kansas Sea and wondered who was waiting for him. With his one human eye, Ark Haight watched the orange and gray clouds boil like lava across the sky above the sea, echoing the turmoil within himself. His enhanced eye saw only the radiation from beneath the smooth grey rock oozing out of the poisoned waters' edge.

      The skimmer rocked violently in the gale, snow pellets ringing off her hull. Ark tried to fasten his jacket against the elements but his field harness was too bulky.

      "Upheaval, it's cold." The snow stung his eye and attacked his face. Ark struggled to keep his footing on the slippery rock, glancing towards the beacon flickering in the distance.

      Damn, he thought, Valery could have begun her sculpting of the crust here and eliminated the need for him to investigate this anomaly. I should be transiting now, to fame and security for the rest of my life, brief as that may be.

      Who would be so stupid to defy Erie? Someone well-armed? He fingered the pistol clipped to his belt and the protective field harness. The standard Executor Corps armament would shield him. He had drilled his transit teams enough to believe it himself.

      Feld Morse's intrusion thirty minutes ago had been even more unwelcome than usual. Ark was on schedule to transit; the final human inhabitant of Earth was due to leave to allow the great artist Valery to begin her re-sculpturing. He spoke to the omnipresent watchers aboard Valery's orbital studio. "Our mistress' carving has begun. I'll be at the transit station in twenty minutes." And, he added silently, Earth will cease to be inhabited by any manner of man.

      "There has been a change in your schedule." Feld Morse's mechanical voice chased away Ark's thoughts. The studio master, second in command only to Valery herself, normally did not associate with the sculptress' dependents. Feld had made it clear in the past that he did not rank Ark's status any higher than his stature, which was dwarfish, even by upheaval standards.

      Ark's annoyance quickly grew to anger. "I don't want interruptions, not now. This had better be worthy, not some minor errand or whim of yours for the last one on Earth to fulfill." He had intended to savour the next twenty minutes and use it to his advantage. Genuine notoriety was difficult to attain amongst a human race scattered across the solar system and beyond, balancing survival in Lagrange habitats or burrowed into thin-atmosphered planets and moons. But Ark knew he would achieve fame among all by being the last man on Earth.

      Half an hour later he was standing here, being assaulted by the wind and fearing an ambush. Ark thumbed his protective field harness to life. He bent his head into the gale and began to walk. He replayed the rest of Feld's news in his mind.

      Feld's voice faded and returned, "...the last."

      Ark said, "Repeat your message. The nano-storm is chiseling ahead of me now. Tell your techs to ease back 'til I transit."

      "Repeating. Apparently, you aren't the last person on Earth. Miss Valery has received a signal."

      Another message from the pre-upheaval races of man, Ark thought, but did not speak his derision aloud. Instead, he said, "I thought you had complete power usage detection. I mean, there were what, less than a quarter of a million people left on the planet when we started? How could even one remain hidden, especially when everyone else had transited?"

      "It is a lifebeat with no powergrid use. An unenhanced human, an avatar. Valery has received the signal. You are directed north of your current position. Coordinates are being supplied to your skimmer. The image is being relayed to your eye; it will alert you when you are near.

      "Your comments on my techs are irrelevant, Valery hasn't begun her carving and will not commence until the Earth is cleansed of you and this throwback."

      Ark's skimmer began to change course, away from the transit station. "How far north am I going? Not to any hot spots?"

      "You'll remain on this side of the pole, some minor radiation, I wouldn't think you'd be worried, your wife lets you touch her now, how much worse can you look?"

      Ark didn't answer the baiting, exposing words that cut as deep as Valery's sculpting 'bots. Let Feld taunt him, Ark's name would be remembered long after Feld was recycled. Ark said, "Give me an ETA, there's one upheaval of a storm on my tail."

      "Thirty minutes."

      Heading north in his skimmer, Ark could see the clouds continually change far ahead. Even his enhanced eye could not penetrate through to the end of the disturbance. The Earth was not going to allow her last living being to flee easily. His navigation screen offered a view. He said, "Thirty minutes on this course will land me in the middle of the Kansas Sea."

      "On the far shore, actually."

      "Someone hid from the scanner and my cleanup teams this close to Erie Inc.'s head bastion?"

      "This lifebeat is very weak. We couldn't detect it against background before. This individual wants to be found, now."

      "How many others are too weak to detect?" When there was no answer, Ark said, "I'm head of the Executor Corps, not cleanup, I never carried out the execution command. I always convinced the reluctant ones to transit."

      "You fought to have your wife sent up here. You knew that some time you would have to make the choice, your lives or the trespassers'."

      He knew Feld was right. Ark had sealed his bargain. He was the last one down here and it was up to him. "This'll look great in the history discs, 'Ark Haight - Executioner. Postscript - also the last man on Earth'."

      "You're disappointed because after all your manipulations, you still aren't where you wanted to be, are you Ark?"

      "What do you mean?" Ark's skimmer was over the Kansas Sea now. The ghosts of those at the bottom would commune no more with the living above.

      "You believe that the last man to leave Earth will be someone special, don't you? But you didn't realize that such a man would have to be special before that. And you are not even ordinary." The voice from orbit held neither tone nor emotion but Ark sensed the mocking attitude.

      "You said yourself I fought for a position ensuring my wife and I privileged status. Valery gave that to me, her chosen one."

      "I know your secret, Ark. You're as shallow as your stature."

      He gritted his implanted teeth and restrained himself from responding. A sudden drop in the skimmer caused him to cry out. "Damn."

      What is it?" Feld asked.

      He put both hands on the control handles. "It's this storm. Turbulence." He could see whitecaps on the water below. Under the surface, he saw strong currents in action, driven by the friction of the waves. "If this isn't Valery's doing, she may have difficulty overcoming the Earth's natural defenses and remaking the planet as she pleases." Ark suddenly believed that the Earth had been toughened by its ordeal as had her survivors.

      "Our lady will have all the power needed. You have twenty minutes to landing. I'll be in contact before then. Out."

      Ark was grateful for the silence. The volume had been set loud to be audible above the screaming of the outside elements against the thin shell of the skimmer. Twenty minutes. The same time it had taken Valery's cutters to erase all physical evidence of the Congo Basin. The time it had taken the orbital annihilators to vaporize the lake below him and kill those who hid at her bottom during the opening skirmishes of the Second Upheaval, as Ark dimly remembered from his history lessons. Lessons taught him by his mother as she slowly died. She had perished the way most did, refugees from the immigrant wars unable to find safety from the radiation, the pollution, the disease.

      Ark believed the survivors in the space habitats and on other worlds would forget the politicians who jumped at the chance to be the first ones off the planet to set and example. Grateful for someone else to make a decision for them. The remembrance would be for the last man, Ark Haight. Unless he was one of the last two.

      Ark stopped walking five meters from the beacon, the light strong enough to force his eye to blink. The signal came from the roof of a small shack. Above the beacon, a huge metal blade, suspended on a tower of struts, shrieked as it spun in the wind. The shack didn't look strong enough to anchor the tower much longer in this gale. A sign he couldn't read hung broken beside a door and light shone dimly through the frosted window.

      Still expecting an attack, he checked his pistol and harness. "I'll use both, if I have to," he said aloud to boost his confidence. The wind was shaking the shack and he heard the creak of the structure straining to remain intact. It seemed certain that anyone inside would see him before they heard him.

      He gripped the pistol with one hand and reached for the handle on the door with the other when it opened for him. He stepped inside.

      The first thing Ark noticed was that the floor of the shack was moving, in contrast to the hard rock outside. The wind was magnified inside the small building. The light inside came from a single source at the same end as the door. Its flicker illuminated small mounds of rubbish and a simple cot. An old woman lay on the cot, her hands still clutching the cord that had opened the door for him. Ark stared at her, feeling a little foolish, armed and ready to defend himself against a horde of assassins.

      She seemed unconcerned at his armament. With a flourish, he holstered his pistol but did not disengage the field harness. The air bit his nose with the sickly-sweet smell of rotting vegetables. He opened his mouth to breathe but the taste of the air nauseated him. His real eye watered.

      He coughed and said, "I am the Commander of Erie Inc.'s Transit Executor Corps. You should not be here."

      The old woman crinkled a tight smile through her tiny mouth. "Erie is not my commander, so what does that make you to me?" Her voice was firm and confident in comparison to her frail appearance.

      "Erie owns this planet and are evicting its tenants on the order of its Chairman and his daughter. My duty is to ensure no one remains. You have no choice." The dwelling shook and Ark swayed in unison with the light hanging from the ceiling.

      "Sit down before you accidentally shoot me, Commander of the Executor Corps. Or should I say, Executioner Corps?"

      "We never kill," Ark blurted, but he sat on a stool bolted to the floor.

      The woman lay back on her bed, her shoulders and head propped up on a rolled blanket. Her white hair was pulled back, revealing a high forehead and well-defined cheekbones. He saw her feet raise the blanket and he realized that she was at least half a meter taller than he. Granted, he was short, even for these times, but he had never seen anyone so tall and well-formed. His suppressed inadequacies bubbled to the surface. He thought of his final command tour.

      "Commander Haight, I can't get used to the buzz. The sound interferes with my leg prosth'. It was Lidgren, bitching again."

      Ark turned his own field off and removed his harness. He held it up above his head. "You live with this twenty-four hours a day until you wear it like a shirt." He spoke to all the trainees. "Two years ago, most of the remaining few hundred thousand inhabitants of Earth were more than glad to accept Erie's offer of transiting off-planet. Erie Inc. gave the Transit Corps those two years to complete our mission."

      Lidgren said, "The Chairman has resided off-planet for the last three decades. And daughter Valery has never set foot on Earth."

      Ark raised his voice, "Ignore him, Valery's cause is noble - to commemorate the quarter-millennium since the end of the Second Upheaval by creating a new face for the scarred Earth. Her father agreed and offered evacuation and settlement for people with no future. People like us. Look at me, not Lieutenant Lidgren. I was a one-eyed, starving cripple. I leaped at the opportunity to join the Corps; you all did. As our reward, my wife and I will enjoy a few years of painless, worry-free comfort."

      "Before the sickness you carry from a dying planet kills you," Lidgren said.

      Ark said, "See that sign?" He pointed to the wall behind the recruits and read it aloud, "DOWN TO THE LAST. How many days left?" he challenged.

      "Fourteen," came the united answer from all but Lidgren.

      "And how many left to transit?" Ark had not looked at the display, knowing it changed minute to minute.

      "Sixteen thousand," again the unified response, except Lidgren.

      "By the time I look, it will be less."

      Lidgren was undoing his harness.

      Ark said, "Mr. Lidgren, I ordered you to wear that continuously."

      Lidgren didn't stop. "I'm quitting. you can have the leg back, too. You're all insane."

      "Erie won't let you quit."

      "Screw them. And screw Valery." The harness clattered to the floor. "They bribed each of you with what you wanted most but look what you're doing to repay them. Some of the people don't want to leave. Erie are the bad guys, not gods. I'm not going up, I'm staying." Lidgren turned his back to Ark and said something to the men.

      Ark thought, no, you can't, I'm last. Lidgren's profile was way off. How many others in the Corps were changing their attitudes after months of enforcing Transit? "I can't let you quit." He readied his pistol, never more than a threat, not knowing if he could use it on one of his team.

      Lidgren swung his attention back to Ark but remained silent.

      Ark interpreted the unspoken challenge. Lidgren knew what Ark didn't admit, he wouldn't shoot him. For a moment their eyes locked, then Ark flicked his vision away. Lidgren started to smile in victory then froze as the bolt hit him in the back from Ark's second-in-command. The smile was still there when Lidgren tumbled to the floor beside his harness.

      Ark steeled himself against the quickly rising bile. This shouldn't happen, this is my fault. "I repeat, don't take your harness off until transit's done and you're safely in orbit."

      The old woman's breath expelled in a tight whistle, echoing the wind outside. Ark still had his pistol in his hand. There was no physical danger here and he dropped it to his side. "I'm not going to kill you."

      She looked at him again, her bright eyes showing none of the age in her face. "Not intentionally, that much I see. But you're here to take me up there." She tilted her head upward. She coughed, then whistled in her breath. "I wouldn't survive a walk to the sea's edge, let alone a lift into orbit. So you are here to complete my life."

      "Erie has provided acceleration tanks for...infirm people." He had never asked if they worked. "And I can carry you easily to my skimmer."

      "Hah," she said. "Everyone is infirm, it is the curse of the Upheaval. I am just old, probably the oldest person you have ever seen."

      True enough, thought Ark.

      "Death would come quickly for me once separated from Earth, from where my family lies. Erie is your God and my devil. I do not accept gifts from the devil. My God is below me, in the soil, the rock and the bones of my ancestors."

      Ark sighed. Conflicting faith had been a major cause of the Second Upheaval. Why couldn't believers be more like the politicians, eager to accept someone else's decisions? It was easy when Erie had all the power, and most of the knowledge. He found himself shouting above the wind. "I've talked with the chairman and he's not the devil. He gave me what I wanted."

      "What do you want?"

      Ark couldn't resist telling her, at least some of it. "Until an hour ago I wanted to stand on rocks, like those outside, and know that I was the only human being on the entire planet."

      "Your desire is human enough, grabbing glory from tragedy," she said. "But you're not entirely human. Not with your false eye and that harness."

      "I'll carry you if I must, but you will transit." He looked away from her. She wouldn't guess any more of his secrets.

      "Not yet," she said.

      Ark began to stand but her curious reply stopped him. Would she come with him? Ark's own inquisitiveness prompted him. "What are you, a magician? How did we miss you?"

      She straightened her head and looked at her feet. "I am Marie Catton and I am unlike you. I am solely human. The villagers called me Mademoiselle Phare, because my grandfather and I used to run this lighthouse. Then he died." She dabbed her eyes with a ragged corner of her blanket. "The ships on the lake stopped coming. Not enough people. The original tower was destroyed by ignorance and I am what is left. I built the windmill for my power out of the scraps." She paused to take a deep breath. "No one missed me. In panic, the animal inside looks after itself. I chose not to transit. And I am unable to run, as you can see."

      It was simplistic. Ark knew the thoroughness of the Transit Corps and the Erie sensors. It would take great cunning to remain undetected. She was not a magician, she was smart. That frightened Ark, he could not debate against her and win. "I do not know why you have lured me here, if not to save you, Mademoiselle Catton. You can bring some of your things with you. I will carry them first." She would be a load herself in this storm.

      "There is only one thing I take with me and I have waited for it to arrive."

      Ark said, "I will take it to my skimmer. Where is it?"

      Marie laughed, "First, tell me your name."

      "Ark...Commander Haight."

      "Ark?" she said. "Like Noah?"

      "Archeron is my full name, but I prefer Ark," he snapped. He puffed in air through his mouth, still trying to avoid the taste of it. "Now, what do you want me to take? Our time is growing tight." No execution. Just pick her and her keepsakes up and transit the lot into orbit. Simple.

      "Archeron, you have brought it."

      "I'm losing patience with these word games, Mademoiselle. I bring you the offer of transit." He stood over her bed. The low cot still came to his mid-thigh.

      "Look at yourself, Ark. You look ridiculous."

      The look in her eyes reminded him of Lidgren when he knew Ark wouldn't shoot him. He had no doubt she knew, too. How could he fulfill his duty and his mission?

      She said, "You have brought the last man to my bedside and he carries a great legacy, if he chooses."

      For a moment Ark tried to understand what she was saying. "Sex?" No, not with this ...crone.

      She laughed again but it turned quickly to a cough. "You are thinking of extending you genes with me. I am sorry, I am much too old. Your desire is admirable. Your survival is important to you. Or is it your immortality?"

      She had guessed.

      She said, "You would not find me a particularly attractive mate. But the thought has passed, hasn't it?"

      Ark said, "Unlike me, my children will know their father. The habitats will ensure healthy, long lives for my family."

      "Show me."

      Ark reached in his breast pocket and withdrew the holo wafer he always carried. He passed it to her. "My wife's name is Erin. We have clearance to have children."

      Marie moved it to see the full effect then returned it to Ark. "You love her and that is why you do this. But you will have other seeds to sew. The ones I plant in your brain. They will need to grow as surely as your children, to aid our survival." Her breath wheezed in again.

      "Your cough sounds dry. Do you have anything to drink before I carry you to the skimmer?"

      She closed her eyes and grimaced as an invisible force arched her abdomen up from the cot. She moved her head from the side and back once in a painful shake. "I have not spoken in a long time and the effort drains me. I have little left to say."

      Ark bent down to pick her up but she raised an arm in front of her and said, "Listen. Despite your artificiality, you are the last man on Earth. This time. Your burden is ensuring that you will not be the last forever. Don't let Valery destroy all that is left; she is no artist. You hold in your soul the feeling of what the Earth was like before mankind abandoned it. The histories will not convey the emotion only you can know."

      Ark had intended to slide his arms underneath her. Now he rested on his knees beside her. "There will be virtuals and re-creations. I'm one man. A crippled, stunted excuse for a man."

      "Your appearance is not your fault; you can overcome that. Virtuals aren't enough. The will to return must be passed directly from you. You have schemed to be the last man, Commander. Use your repute to communicate the sadness you feel at this moment. Your nobility of spirit will show through any physical shortcomings you feel."

      "I'm not sure I..."

      She clutched his hand. "Tell them of the grief you experienced holding the last woman on Earth. Hold me."

      Ark put his arm under hers and raised her head to his shoulder. She was light to touch but not as fragile as he had expected. Her musty smell penetrated his eye and throat.

      She whispered in his ear, "Remember everything about this moment. Remember the passing of the last woman on Earth."

      He felt her warm breath on his neck. It came and came then her weight sunk and there was no more talk or breath.

      Ark knelt beside the cot for a long time. The tears never came, just an inner anger. Anger at Valery, Erie and himself.

      Later, Ark stood alone on the shore of the dead sea. Looking far across the gray water, he felt no pleasure in his solitude. If only he could have brought her to the habitat. She would make the others feel as he did now. He looked down at the stubby fingers that had held Marie Catton and knew they would carry her always.

      Ark stood in front of the small crowd. His old Transit Corps uniform was clean and the buttons shone. He straightened his back as much as he could, the pain was always there but he knew he could get through his address to this group and the next and the next after that.

      "Ladies and gentlemen." He saw there were quite a few children up front. That was good. "My name is Archeron Haight and I was the last man to stand on the planet of our birth. Most of you have never touched the Earth, spinning empty and wounded beneath this habitat, and you may wonder what can this man tell us of importance?" A twinge from his muscles, crying to be returned to their normal bent posture, halted his speech. Ark clenched his fists until the pain abated enough for his to continue.

      "Forget, if you can, what I am for the moment. I am here to tell you of a much more important person. I am here to tell you of the last woman on Earth. Her name was Marie Catton, Mademoiselle Phare. The light of wisdom."

      Ark pictured her as he spoke and it helped communicate her message across the miles and the years. He held her again for the hundredth time and repeated his silent vow.

      "This is a holo of my son. He is an ordinary boy, thank heaven. I tell him that he, and many of you, have an important task. It is not important that Ark Haight was the last man on Earth. Paramount is who will lead the return."

 

the end

This story originally appeared in North of Infinity Futurity Visions, Mosaic Press.


Al Onia

Al Onia concentrates on Science Fiction, mostly from the hard to the hard-boiled.