«The Last Man’s First Year on Earth by David W. Goldman ne of the dancers jumps onto a table beside the stage, O catapulting an unfinished drink ...»
Originally published in Helix #7, Winter 2008 For copyright details, please
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The Last Man’s First Year on Earth
by David W. Goldman
ne of the dancers jumps onto a table beside the stage,
O catapulting an unfinished drink high over the small, crowded
dance floor. Bright purple wavelets splash from the tumbling glass
onto the dancers—who, oblivious, continue whirling to the insistent
throb that fills the long, dimly lit room.
From where he stands by the bar at the room’s other end, Molloy can’t make out the gender of the dancer on the table. As he watches, the dancer kicks forward—and a trayful of pills skitter out across the tiled floor. Molloy imagines little crunching noises as the pills rendezvous with dancers’ feet. But all he can actually hear are the band’s primitively pounding chords and screeching ululations.
One reason Molloy can’t better discern the dancer is that—Molloy flips a mental coin for the pronoun—her table is right in the middle of a cascade of multihued gems pouring down from the ceiling, a meter-thick coruscant curtain that surrounds the small stage and engulfs the nearest tables. Molloy assumes this light show is controlled by one of the two band members who stand immersed from head to groin in interface gel; the mushroom-shaped mound of gel fills half the stage.
The third musician blows a soprano sax.
www.DavidWGoldman.com David W. Goldman •2• The Last Man’s First Year on Earth Or maybe there’s no light show at all. Ten minutes ago the bartender gave Molloy an amp of Synesth, and now he’s having trouble keeping his senses apart. Three stools down, a girl orders a gin and tonic; to Molloy her voice smells like frying onions. When the bartender sets the drink before her, the click of the glass against the hard plastic counter washes over Molloy as a chilly pulse of red.
The boy on Molloy’s other side is tapping both hands against the bar in time to the music. But he’s a fraction of a second off. The delay slowly increases, and Molloy realizes that the boy must be on a time-sense modifier. Molloy has heard of these drugs, but this is his first chance to see one in action. Fascinated, he watches as the tapping of the boy’s left hand begins to fall further and further behind the right. Apparently this is one of those drugs that enter directly through the olfactory nerves, rather than through the bloodstream—the boy must have sniffed more of it up to one side of his brain than the other.
The boy looks about twelve years old.
The girl with the gin and tonic could be ten.
On another night their ages might have bothered Molloy. But tonight he’s riding a big dose of Serene. Lately, in fact, he’s been riding a lot of big doses of Serene. He wonders just how much of the drug he’s been using, and whether that might be bad for him.
He doesn’t really worry about it, though.
*** Molloy woke from a dream of Max. They were cuddling naked in their bunk, and she was about to tell him something very important.
He reached for the receding dream, trying to pull himself back inside. Then he gave up and just lay there, eyes still closed,
savoring the firm mattress and the crisp, newly laundered sheets.
The edge of a summer breeze blew across his face.
He frowned, opened his eyes.
He was not aboard the ship. He was curled on his side in a comfortable bed, in the middle of a small room with cheerful yellow walls. An open window showed blue sky and trees, and admitted the caw of a distant crow.
He was naked, beneath a sheet but no other covers. He rolled onto his back and straightened his legs. The bed was too short for him.
A flimsy-looking wooden door faced the foot of his bed. It opened now and two children entered, a girl and a boy. The boy wore tan shorts and a dull red smock with several pockets. The girl was in a knee-length blue gingham dress. From the sound of their footsteps, both were barefoot.
He guessed their ages at nine or ten.
The girl smiled at him. “Woke right on time, I see. Good for you!” The boy pulled a couple of palm-sized cards from a pocket. He glanced at one of them, then handed it to the girl. She studied the card’s surface, nodding.
“You’re looking just fine,” she said, continuing to examine the card, “just fine.” She passed the card back to the boy and smiled again at Molloy. “Before we start, have you any questions for us?” Molloy was taken aback by her poise and manner of speech. He opened his mouth to respond, but his throat was very dry. The girl pointed to a small table beside the bed, where a glass of water rested. With a little effort Molloy pushed himself up onto his elbows, and then to sitting. He reached for the glass, took a few sips. He returned the glass to the table and turned again to the girl and boy.
And, to his mild surprise, realized that he had no immediate questions. He shrugged, sheepishly.
www.DavidWGoldman.com David W. Goldman •4• The Last Man’s First Year on Earth The girl nodded, and turned to the boy. He touched the edge of the card with his fingertip, then looked at Molloy. “Can you tell us your name?” Bemused by these children playing at being adults, but content to cooperate, Molloy answered. “Kerry Molloy.” The boy touched his card again. He glanced at it, then asked, “Place of birth?” “Plymouth, Massachusetts.” “Date of birth?” “February 16, 2072.” “Profession?” “Zoologist. Or xenobiologist, on a good day.” The boy nodded. He offered the card to the girl, but she ignored it. She beamed at Molloy. “Very good, Kerry. Very good indeed.” He might have been her prize student. “Now tell us, what is the last thing you remember, before waking here?” Max, he thought. No, that was the dream.
He answered slowly. “The da Gama. We were a month out from Shastri’s Star, heading home. Everyone was already coldsleeping except me and Max—Dr. Seurat. I was in my bunker, waiting for her to activate it. She leaned over toward me, and…” He frowned, closed his eyes in concentration. “She leaned over…” After a few seconds he looked up at them, vaguely troubled.
“Retrograde amnesia,” said the boy. “Your memories of the last few minutes before hibernation never reached long-term storage.
Well-reported in the literature. Nothing to worry about.” Molloy nodded. He didn’t feel worried. He did wonder, though, whether perceiving his doctors as children meant that he’d suffered some kind of stroke.
The girl was still smiling. “You’ve come through very nicely, Kerry. Now get some sleep. We’ll stop by again tomorrow.” www.DavidWGoldman.com David W. Goldman •5• The Last Man’s First Year on Earth But as the boy pulled the door open, Molloy said, “Wait.” They turned back. The girl’s eyebrows were raised in surprise.
Molloy wished he hadn’t said anything. His question really didn’t seem all that important.
“Yes?” asked the girl.
“Well,” said Molloy. “I was just wondering. About…Dr. Seurat. Is she here, too?” The girl’s eyes went wide for an instant, and then her smile faded. “Kerry,” she said, “do you remember what happened to Dr.
Vogler, when you arrived at Shastri’s?” He frowned at the memory. “His bunker—it had failed during the trip out. He was dead.” She nodded. She spoke carefully, her eyes locked onto his. “Well, I’m afraid that on the trip back, all of the bunkers—except yours—failed.” “But—no, not Max!” For an instant he felt a tearing pain in his abdomen, as if something had been ripped out of him. But then the pain eased. “Max…is dead? And everyone else, too?” The girl nodded again. She waited. After a moment she looked at the boy, and the two of them quietly left the room.
Molloy settled back into the bed. He turned again to face the window.
Poor Max, he thought.
In the distance, a crow cawed.
Molloy fell asleep.
As the girl had promised, they came again the next morning. The boy helped Molloy sit up and don a hospital gown as the girl placed a breakfast tray onto the bedside table: two slices of toast, a glass of red, pulpy juice, a small bowl of some kind of pudding.
At the girl’s suggestion, he perched on the edge of the bed and began to eat.
www.DavidWGoldman.com David W. Goldman •6• The Last Man’s First Year on Earth “Today we’ll start filling you in,” she said. This morning she wore pink shorts and a matching blouse with lace around the collar. The boy’s tan shorts and reddish smock were unchanged. “I’m sure you have a hundred questions—though I imagine that none of them seems very important just now. Am I right?” He considered for a moment, then shrugged. He reached for the juice.
“That’s the first thing we need to explain. You’re on a medication to help you through the shock of losing your friends, and the stress of adapting to a new world. The medication doesn’t interfere with your ability to process information. But it blocks some of the normal emotional response—at the dose you’re currently on, nearly all of the emotional response. So your intellect is unimpaired, but you’ll find that nothing really seems to matter.” He nodded. “Sounds about right.” “Unfortunately, that also means that you don’t have much initiative right now. So we need to anticipate your questions.
Jonathan—” she indicated the boy, who was leaning against the wall near the door—“and I have had to educate ourselves not only about your mission, but also all about late 21st-century culture and society. You’ve been quite the project for us!” He raised his pudding-laden spoon toward her in salute.
She paused, then returned to what was apparently her prepared speech. “We’ll keep you at your present dose of Serene for a few weeks, then gradually wean you off. Later you’ll still work through all the usual stages of grief and adjustment—but only after your intellectual acceptance is complete. You won’t suffer any posttraumatic stress.” She seemed to be waiting for a response. “Okay,” he said.
She looked toward the boy. “Jonathan?” He stepped forward from the wall and faced Molloy. “The Vasco www.DavidWGoldman.com David W. Goldman •7• The Last Man’s First Year on Earth da Gama returned to Earth orbit precisely on schedule, in 2234.
But the automated reactivation sequence failed. For reasons that you’ll learn soon, nobody was able to get up to retrieve the crew until quite some time later. When we finally arrived, we discovered that only two of the coldsleep bunkers were even barely functioning—yours and Shawn Foster’s.” Molloy was hit with a memory of Shawn flying him down to Shastri IV, the little pilot grinning evilly as their shuttle performed a sudden, unannounced barrel-roll. A typical Shawn moment! But then the image lost its immediacy—it could have been a vid he’d watched once, years ago.
The boy continued. “Ms. Foster’s bunker was at the edge of failure, so we tried to revive her first. We were not successful. But what we learned in the attempt helped us with you.” The girl took over. “Jonathan mentioned that you were in orbit awhile before we brought you down. It was longer than you might assume. That’s partly why the bunkers failed.” She paused. “Today is July 15, 2309. More than two hundred years since you left Earth.” “Wow,” said Molloy.
“Yes,” the girl nodded. “Wow.” The boy reached into a pocket and pulled out a handful of his little cards. He fanned them and removed one. He returned the rest to his pocket, then stepped to the bed and handed the chosen card to Molloy.
It was plastic, six or seven centimeters across and two-thirds as tall. Surprisingly heavy. Molloy looked at the face of the card.
The room disappeared. Molloy was immersed in a featureless expanse of deep blue. White letters appeared before him: Press to begin. A short arrow extended rightward from the words.
He blinked and lowered the card. The letters and their www.DavidWGoldman.com David W. Goldman •8• The Last Man’s First Year on Earth background immediately vanished.
He looked again at the card. The blue field returned, with its short instruction. He turned the card away and the room came back.
“Direct laser painting onto your retinas,” said the boy. “It’s activated by your attention, shuts off when you look away. You control it via pressure sensors around the rim. Understand?” Molloy nodded.
The girl said, “We’ve programmed it with pretty much everything that’s happened since you left. It’s all cross-linked; you can just browse wherever you like. Though I’d suggest you start with the chronologic overview.” Molloy looked again into the card’s blueness. He slid his thumb up along the card’s edge; bright against the blue background, a yellow dot moved simultaneously upward toward the end of the arrow. He pressed, and the previous words were replaced by a short list of choices: Chronology / Events / Science & Technology / Culture. He lowered the card. “Okay,” he said.
The girl smiled at him. “You study today. We’ll talk again tomorrow.” They left.
Molloy looked at the card and considered his choices.
When they returned the next morning, the boy lifted the card from Molloy’s bedside table. He glanced at it, then turned to the girl and gave a little shake of his head.
She sighed. “You didn’t read anything?” she asked Molloy.
“I was going to get to it later.” He shrugged. “Sorry.” Another sigh. “Not your fault.” She turned to the boy. “Better lower his dose. You seem to have been right about the metabolic differences.” As he ate his breakfast, the girl asked, “Kerry, how old do you www.DavidWGoldman.com David W. Goldman •9• The Last Man’s First Year on Earth think I am?” Molloy finished chewing his toast. “Ten, maybe?” “And Jonathan?” He glanced at the boy. “About the same, I guess. Or maybe a year more.” She nodded. “Actually, I’m a bit older than Jonathan. He’s not quite seventy.” Molloy assumed he had misheard her.
“My birthday is next week,” the girl continued. “I’ll be a hundred and twenty-four.” Molloy put down his toast. He looked from one child to the other.