Subterranean Press Magazine: Winter 2011

Fiction: A Long Walk Home by Jay Lake

  April 27th, 2977 CE [Revised Terran Standard, relativity-adjusted]

    Aeschylus Sforza - Ask to his friends, such as they were - had camped deep in the cave system he was exploring here in the Fayerweather Mountains of Redghost. Well, technically assaying, but the thrill of going places no human being had ever before seen or likely would see again had never died for him. Planetary exploration was interesting enough, but any fool with a good sensor suite could assay from orbit. Creeping down into the stygian depths of water and stone… now that took some nerve.

    Challenge. It was all about challenge. And the rewards thereof, of course.

    Back at the Howard Institute, during the four-year long psychological orientation prior to his procedures, they’d warned Ask that ennui was a common experience among Howards. The state of mind tended to reach psychotic dimensions in perhaps fifteen percent of his fellows after the first century of post-conversion life. At the time, the observational baseline had only been about sixteen decades.

    Pushing 800 years of age now himself, Ask had not yet surrendered to terminal boredom. Admittedly he found most people execrably vapid. About the time they’d gained enough life experience to have something interesting to say, they tended to die of old age. People came and people went, but there was always some fascinating hole in the ground with his name on it.

    He’d discovered the sulfur fountains deep beneath the brittle crust of Melisande-3?. He’d been the first to walk the narrow, quivering ice bridges in the deep canyons of Qiu Ju, that rang like bells at every footfall. He’d found the lava tube worms on Førfør the hard way, barely escaping with his life and famously losing over two million Polity-IFA schillings worth of equipment in the process.

    First. That romance had never died for him.

    Here beneath Redghost, Ask was exploring a network of crevices and tunnels lined with a peculiar combination of rare earths and alloys with semiconductive properties. Considerable debate raged within his employer’s Planetary Assay Division as to whether these formations could possibly be natural, or, to the contrary, could possibly be artificial. After over a millennium of interstellar expansion to a catalog of better than sixteen thousand explored planets, more than two thousand of them permanently inhabited, the human race had yet to settle the question of whether other sophont life now populated, or ever had populated, this end of the galaxy.

    Ask recognized the inherent importance of the question. He didn’t expect to run into aliens beneath the planetary crust, though. Beneath any planetary crust, in truth. So far he had not been disappointed.

    And these tunnels… Many were smooth like lava tubes.  Most of those interconnected. Some were not, jagged openings that tended to dead-end. All were lined with a threaded metallic mesh that glinted in his handlight with the effervescence of a distant fairyland glimpsed only in dreams. Seen through his thermal vision, they glowed just slightly warmer than the ambient stone, a network like a neural map.

    That resemblance was not lost on Ask. Nor was the patently obvious fact that whatever natural or artificial process had deposited this coating inside these tunnels was more recent than the formation of the tunnels themselves. His current working theory was that the smooth passages were the result of some long-vanished petrophage, while the rough passages were formed by the more usual geological processes. The coating, now, there was a mystery.

    Ask sat in an intersection of three of the smooth passages, enjoying his quick-heated fish stew. Redghost boasted a generous hydrosphere that the colonists here had husbanded magnificently with Terran stock. And the smell of it was magnificent, too - the rich meat of the salmon, spicy notes from tarragon and false-sage, the slight edginess of the kale.

    If he closed his eyes, held very still, and concentrated, Ask could hear the faint echoes of air moving in the tunnels. Atmospheric pressure variations and subtle pressures in the lithosphere made a great, slow, rumbling organ of this place.

    A series of jarring thumps more felt than heard woke him from his reverie. Dust fell from the arch of the ceiling - the first time he’d observed that kind of decay while down here.

    He consulted his telemetery. One advantage of being a Howard was all the hardware you could carry in your head. Literally as well as figuratively. Data flowed into his optic processing centers in configurable cognitive displays that he could chunk to whatever degree he liked. Like fireworks in the mind, though fractal in nature. Elephants all the way down, one of his early tutors had said, before being forced to explain the joke. Elephants, made of tinier elephants, made of tinier elephants, almost ad infinitum.

    In this case, Ask’s fractal elephants informed him that the subsurface sensors were jittering with tiny temblors, confirming in finely-grained technical detail what he’d already felt. The surface sensors were offline.

    That was odd.

    He also noted a series of neutrino bursts. Solar flares from Redghost’s host star? That hadn’t been in any of the forecasts.

    The still-operating sensor cluster closest to the cave mouth started to register a slow increase in ambient radiation as well. Everything above that was dead, as was his surface equipment. It would be a long walk home if the rockhopper and his base camp equipment just outside were knocked out of commission just like the upper sensors.

    Had someone let off a nuke? Ask found that almost inconceivable. Politically it was… bizarre. Disputes within the Polity weren’t resolved by force of arms. Not often, at any rate. And even then, almost always via small-scale engagements.

    Tactically it was even stranger. Redghost didn’t have much that anyone wanted except living space and arable land. Who would bother?

    Uneasy, he rested out the remainder of his body-clocked night. The radiation levels near the surface quickly peaked, though they did not subside all the way back to their earlier baseline norms. Hotter than he might like, but at least he wouldn’t be strolling into a fallout hell.

#

    April 28th, 2977 [RTS-ra]

    When he reached the first inoperative sensor cluster, Ask peeled the nubbly gray strip off the wall and studied it. Ten centimeters of adhesive polymer with several hundred microdots of instrumentation. The only reason for it to be even this large was the convenience of human hands. With no camera in his standard subsurface packages, focal length was never an issue.

    The failure mode band at the end was starkly purple from radiation exposure. The neutrino bursts must have been part of some very fast cloud of high-energy particles that fried the equipment, he realized. Instrumentation deeper down had been protected by a sufficient layer of planetary crust. Not to mention the curiously semiconducting tunnel walls.

    A cold thought stole through Ask’s mind. What would that burst have done to the enhancements crowding for skullspace inside his head?

    Well, that spike had passed, at any rate.

    He doubled back and dropped his camping gear, instruments, tools and handlights down the tunnels with the last working sensor. It seemed sensible enough, given that he had no way of knowing whether the events of last night would re-occur.

    Once that was done, he approached the entrance with caution. Though the official reports he occasionally saw were far more complex and nuanced, the chief causes of death among his fellow Howards could be boiled down to either murder or stupidity. Or too often, both.

    Whatever was happening on the surface seemed ripe for either option.

    His outside equipment remained obstinately dead. Ask drifted to the point where reflected light from the surface began to make deep gray shadows of the otherwise permanent darkness. He should have been able to pick up comm chatter now, at least as garbled scatter.

    Nothing.

    There had been no more quakes. No more neutrino bursts. Whatever had taken place last night was a single event, or contained series of events, not an ongoing situation. Which rather argued against solar flares - those lasted for days at a time.

    Stupidity? Or murder? Could those happen on a planetary scale?

    Why, he wondered, had that thought occurred to him? Everything he’d experienced since last night could just as easily be local effects from a misplaced bomb or a particularly improbable power plant accident. Not that there were any power plants up in Redghost’s mountains, but a starship having a very bad day in low orbit would have served that scenario.

    It was the silence on the comm spectra that had put the wind up him, Ask realized. Even the long-wave stuff used for planetary science was down.

    Quiet as nature had ever intended this planet to be.

    He walked into the light, wondering what he would find.

    #

    The base camp equipment looked normal enough. No one had shot it up. Fried electronically, Ask realized. The rockhopper on the other hand, was… strange.

    When you’d lived the better part of a thousand years, much of it exploring, your definitions of strange became fairly elastic. Even in that context, this decidedly qualified.

    Really, the rockhopper was just an air car, not radically different from the twenty-fourth century’s first efforts at gravimetric technology. A mass-rated lifting spine with a boron-lattice power pack around which a multitude of bodies or hulls could be constructed. Useless away from a decent mass with a magnetosphere, but otherwise damned handy things, air cars. The rockhopper was a variant suited to landings in unimproved terrain, combining all-weather survivability with a complex arrangement of storage compartments, utility feeds and a cab intended for long-term inhabitation. Eight meters long, roughly three meters wide and slightly less tall, it looked like any other piece of high-endurance industrial equipment, right down to the white and orange “see me” paint job.

    Someone had definitely shot it up. Ask was fairly certain that if he’d managed to arrive somewhat earlier, he would have seen wisps of smoke curling up. As it was, sprung access panels and a starred windshield testified to significant brute force - that front screen was space-rated plaz, and should have remained intact even if the cab around it had delaminated.

    Something had hit the vehicle very, very hard.

    After a bit of careful climbing about, Ask identified seven entry points, all from a fairly high angle. He couldn’t help glancing repeatedly up at the sky. Redghost’s faintly mauve heavens, wispy with altocirrus, appeared as benign as ever.

    Orbital kinetics. No other explanation presented itself. That was even weirder than a nuke. And why anyone would bother to target an unoccupied rockhopper off in the wilderness was a question he could not even begin to answer.

    A particularly baroque assassination attempt, perhaps? He’d always avoided politics, both the official kind intertwined with the Polity’s governance, and the unofficial kind among the Howards themselves. That particular stupidity was the shortest path to murder, in Ask’s opinion.

    As a result of the strike on the aircar, the power pack was fractured unto death and being mildly toxic about its fate. Nothing his reinforced metabolism couldn’t handle for a while, but he probably shouldn’t hang around too long. As a result of the neutrino bursts, or more to the point, whatever had created them, every independent battery or power source in his equipment was fried, too.

    Someone had been annoyingly thorough.

    He finally found three slim Class II batteries in a shielded sample container. They lit up the passive test probe Ask had pulled out of one of the tool boxes, but wouldn’t be good for much more than powering a small handlight or some short-range comm.

    The way things were going, carrying any power source around seemed like a bad idea. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do much about the electronics in his skull, except to hope they were sufficiently low power to avoid drawing undue attention.

    As for the batteries, he settled for stashing them with the surviving campsite equipment he’d left back in the caves with the last working sensor suite.  He retrieved what little of his gear was not actively wired - mostly protective clothing and his sleeping bag - and went back out to survey his route down out of these mountains. His emergency evac route had been almost due west, to a place he’d never visited called the Shindaiwa Valley. A two-hour rockhopper flight over rough terrain could be weeks of walking.

    Not to mention which, a man had to eat along the way. Even, or perhaps especially, if that man was a Howard.

#

    May 13th, 2977 [RTS-ra]

    Ask toiled across an apron of scree leading to a round-shoulder ridge. He was switchbacking his way upward. Dust and grit caked his nose and mouth, the sharp smell of rock and the acrid odor of tiny plants crushed beneath his boots.

    Had the formation been interrupted, it would have been a butte, but this wall ran for kilometers in both directions. The broken range of hills rising behind him had dumped him into the long, narrow valley that ran entirely athwart his intended line of progress.

    Over two weeks of walking since he’d left the rockhopper behind. That was a long way on foot. Time didn’t bother Ask. Neither did distance. But the ridiculousness of combining the two on foot seemed sharply ironic. He’d not walked so much since his childhood in Tasmania. Redghost was not the Earth of eight hundred years ago.

    At least he’d been out in the temperate latitudes in this hemisphere’s springtime - the weather for this journey would have been fatally unpleasant at other times and places on this planet.

    He had no direct way to measure the radiation levels, but presumed from the lack of any symptoms on his part that they had held level or dropped over the time since what he now thought of as Day Zero. His Howard-enhanced immune system would handle the longer-term issues of radiation exposure as it had for the past centuries - that was not a significant concern.

    Likewise he had no way to sample the comm spectra, as he’d left all his powered devices behind. But since he had not seen a single contrail or overflight in the past two weeks, he wasn’t optimistic there, either. The night sky, by contrast, had been something of a light show. Either Redghost was experiencing an extended and unforecasted meteor shower or lot of space junk was de-orbiting.

    The admittedly minimal evidence did not point to any favorable outcome.

    Those worries aside, the worst part of his walk had been the food and water. He’d crammed his daypack with energy bars before leaving the rockhopper, but that was a decidedly finite nutritional reserve. Not even his Howard-enhanced strength and endurance could carry sufficient water for more than a few days while traveling afoot. Those same enhancements roughly doubled his daily calorie requirements over baseline human norms.

    Which meant he’d eaten a lot of runner cactus, spent several hours a day catching skinks and the little sandlion insect-analogs they preyed on, and dug for water over and over, until his hands developed calluses.

    Two hundred kilometers of walking to cross perhaps a hundred and twenty kilometers of straight line vector. On flat ground with a sag wagon following, Ask figured he could have covered this distance in less than four full days.

    The scree shifted beneath him. Ask almost danced over the rolling rocks, wary of a sprained or broken ankle. When injured he healed magnificently well, but he could not afford to be trapped in one place for long. Especially not in one place with so few prospects for food or water as this slope.

    The cliffs towered above him. The rock was rotten, an old basalt dike with interposed ash layers that quickly - in a geological sense - surrendered to the elements so that the material sheered away in massive flakes the size of landing shuttles. That left a wonderfully irregular face for him to climb when he topped the scree slope. It also left an amazingly dangerous selection of finger- and toe-holds.

    On the other side of this ridge was the wide riparian valley of the Shindaiwa River, settled thickly by rural Redghost standards with farmland, sheep ranches and some purely nonfunctional estates. Drainage from rain and snowpack higher up the watershed to the north kept the valley lush even in this drier region in the rain shadow of the Monomoku Mountains further to the west.

    All he had to do was climb this ridge, cross over it, and scramble down the other side. And he’d find… People? Ruins?

    Ask didn’t want to think too hard about that. He couldn’t think about anything else. So he kept climbing.

#

    The river was still there. He tried to convince himself that this was at least a plus.

    The ridgeline gave an excellent view of the Shindaiwa Valley. Though nothing curdled with the smoke of destruction, he also had an excellent view of a number of fire scars where structures had burned. There seemed to be a fair amount of dead livestock as well. A lot more animals still wandered in fenced pastures.

    Nothing human moved. No boats on the river. No vehicles on the thin skein of roads. The railroad tracks leading south toward Port Schumann and the shores of the Eniewetok Sea were empty. No smoke from fireplaces or brush burning. No winking lights for navigation, warning or welcome.

    Even from his height and distance, Ask could see what had become of the hand of man in this place.

    He had to look. At a minimum, he had to find food. Most of the structures were standing. The idea of looting the houses of the dead for food distressed him. The idea of starving distressed him more.

#

    He didn’t reach the first farmhouse until evening’s dusk. Ask would have strongly preferred to do his breaking and entering in broad daylight, but another night of hunger out in the open seemed foolish with the building right in front of him. A tall fieldstone foundation was topped by two stories of brightly painted wooden house that would not have looked out of place on one of the wealthier neighboring farms of his youth.

    Ask wasn’t sure if this was a deliberate revival of an ancient fashion of building, or a sort of architectural version of parallel evolution.

    Chickens clucked and fussed in the yard with the beady-eyed paranoia of birds. Some had already climbed into the spreading bush that seemed to be their roost, others were hunting for some last bit of whatever the hell it was chickens ate.

    Beyond the house, a forlorn flock of sheep pressed against the fenced boundary of a pasture, bleating at him. He had no idea what they wanted, but they looked pretty scraggly. A number of them were dead, grubby bodies scattered in the grass.

    Water, he realized, seeing the churned up earth around a metal trough. They were dying of thirst.

    Ask walked around the house to see if the trough could be refilled. He found the line poking up out of the soil, and the tap that controlled it. Turning that on did nothing, however.

    Of course it wouldn’t, he realized. No power for the well pump.

    He sighed and unlatched the gate. “River’s over there, guys,” Ask said, his voice a croak. He realized he hadn’t spoken aloud in the two weeks he’d been walking.

    The sheep just stared at him. They made no move for freedom. There wasn’t anything more he could do for the animals. He shrugged and walked back to the house, up the rear steps.

#

    Inside the house was a mess. If he’d come on it in broad daylight, even from the outside he’d have noticed the cracked and shattered windows. Inside, the floors were dirty with splinters and wisps of insulation.

    The lack of people was disturbing. So was the lack of blood, in a weird way.

    They’d just walked outside, leaving the doors standing open, and vanished. Then orbital kinetics had plowed through the roof to disable the house’s power plant, core comm system and - oddly - the oven.  He figured it had to have happened in that order, because if anyone had been inside the house when the strikes hit, there would be signs of panic - toppled furniture, maybe blood from the splinters and other collateral damage.

    With that happy thought in mind, Ask walked around the house in the deepening dark, checking every commset, music player, power tool and any other gadget he could find to switch on. The small electronics were fried, too, just like the equipment in his rock hopper.

    It was if the old fairy tale of the Christian Rapture had come true, here on Redghost. Followed by the explosive revenge of the exploited electron? He hadn’t so much as looked at a Bible in over seven hundred years, but Ask was pretty sure that there hadn’t been any mention of a rapture of the batteries.

    “Render unto Volta those things which are Volta’s,” he said into the darkness, then began giggling.

    His discipline finally broke. Ask retreated to the kitchen to hunt for food and drink.

#

    June 21st, 2977 [RTS-ra]

    It took him five weeks to explore every house in this part of the Shindaiwa Valley. On the way, Ask opened all the pasture gates he could find, shooing out the cattle and sheep and horses. The llamas, pigs and goats were smart enough to leave on their own, where they hadn’t already jumped or broken the gates, or - in the case of the goats - picked the latches.

    Most of them would starve even outside the fences, but at least they could find water and better pasture. Some would survive. So far as he knew, Redghost had no apex predators in the native ecology. Humans certainly hadn’t imported any.

    Give the dogs a few generations of living wild and that would change, though.

    It was the damned dogs that broke his heart. The household pets were the worst. So many of them had starved, or eaten one another. And the survivors expected more of him than the farm animals had. When he slipped open a door or tore a screen, they rushed up to him. Barking, whining, mewling. He was a Person, he was Food, he could let the good boys Out. And the dogs knew they had been Bad. Crapping in corners, sleeping on the furniture, whining outside bedroom doors forever shut and silent.

    In truth, that became the reason he’d entered every house or building he could find. To let out the cats and dogs and dwarf pigs. Finding a bicycle meant he could gain distance on those dogs that wanted to follow him. The cats didn’t care, the pigs were too smart to try. He let the occasional birds out, too, and when he could, dumped the fish tanks into whatever nearby watercourse presented itself.

    The more he walked, the fewer of them were left alive inside. But he had to try.

    Thirty-nine days in the Shindaiwa Valley, and he’d visited almost four hundred houses, dormitories, granaries, slaughterhouses, tanneries, cold storage warehouses, machine workshops, emergency services centers, feed stores, schools. Even three railroad stations, a small hospital and a tiny airport terminal.

    Not a single human being. Not so much as fingerbone. He’d even dug up both an old grave and a recent one to see if the bodies had been left behind. They had. Ask couldn’t remember enough about Christianity to figure out of that was evidence for or against the Rapture. He did rebury them, and say what he could remember of the Lord’s Prayer over the fresh-turned earth.

    “Ten thousand sheep, a thousand cats and dogs, and me,” he told a patient oak tree. It was wind-bent and twisted, standing in an ornamental square in front of the Lower Shindaiwa Valley Todd Christensen Memorial Railroad Depot Number 2. A sign proclaimed this to be the first Terran tree in the valley, planted by one of the pioneer farmers two centuries earlier. “You’re a survivor. Like me.”

    But of what?

    One small blessing of the railroad station was a modest selection of cheap tourist maps printed on plastene flimsy. Some people just didn’t want to mess with dataflow devices all the time. On a relatively thinly-settled planet like Redghost the electrosphere was largely incomplete anyway.

    Had been. It was nonexistent now, which was the utmost form of incompletion.

    Ask shuffled the map flimsies. His knowledge of local planetography was poor - it simply hadn’t been important. He’d been dropped by shuttle at Atarashii ?saka, the main spaceport and entrepôt for Redghost. He was vaguely aware of three or four other sites with support for surface-to-orbit transfer. And his assignment in the Fayerweather Mountains, for which he’d based out of Port Schumann after an atmospheric flight from Atarashii ?saka.

    That was it. All he’d known about the Shindaiwa Valley was that this was his first line of emergency evacuation. All he’d known about Redghost was the semiconducting tunnels, and a notion of a bucolic paradise home to perhaps twenty million souls.

    His next stop, he figured, would be Port Schumann. It was a city, at least by Redghost standards. Anyone else surviving on this part of the planet would have headed there.

    In a bleak frame of mind, Ask figured that twenty million people would have about five million residences and perhaps half a million commercial structures. He’d managed an average ten buildings per day here in the Shindaiwa Valley. Denser in the cities, of course. Still, figure six hundred thousand days to check every structure on Redghost, plus the travel time between places. Fifty years? A hundred, if the buildings in Atarashii ?saka and the few other relatively large cities were too big to check so quickly?

    Where the hell did twenty million people go? A planet full of corpses, he could understand. A planet empty of people…

#

January 4th, 2978 [RTS-ra]

    The crashed airplane in the hills east of Port Schumann had caught his attention as he’d cycled along the rough service road paralleling a rail line. It was a fixed-wing craft with propeller engines - something fairly simply designed to be locally serviceable without parts imported from off-planet. The fuselage looked intact, so he’d gone to check it out.

    Weapons hadn’t seemed to be much of an issue, and most of what he’d found in that department had been useless anyway due to embedded electronics, but he was always curious what he might find.

    This craft had seated six. Small, white with pale green stripes and the seal of the Redghost Ministry of Social Adjustment on the side.  Planetary judiciary, in local terms. It was missing one door, he noted as he approached.

    He looked inside to see someone in the rear seat.

    “Shit!” Ask screamed, jumping back.

    He’d been too long without company. He was starting to regret not bringing a few of the dogs from the Shindaiwa Valley with him.

    Feeling foolish, Ask unclipped the aluminum pump from his bike and held it loosely like a club. Some of the Howards were killers, dangerous as human being who’d ever lived, but he’d never bothered with that training or those enhancements. He was strong enough to swing something like this pump right through a wall at need. At least until the wall or the pump shattered.

    That had been enough.

    Until now.

    He approached the airplane again. Having already screamed, there didn’t seem much point in secrecy now. Still, he didn’t want to just march into the wreck.

    The person was still there.

    No, he corrected himself against the obvious. The body. Who the hell would stay seated in crashed airplane? For one thing, it was pretty cold out here at night.

    A man, he thought. Handcuffed to his seat. Ask climbed into the cabin and crept close. It was hard to tell, with the flesh mummifying in the cold, but it looked like the prisoner had struggled hard against his cuffs.

    Ask stepped up to the pilot and co-pilot’s seats. Smashed instruments and windows, torn seat cushions. No blood.

    They’d been gone from the plane, or at least out of their seats, before the orbital kinetics had struck the aircraft. In flight.

    And the missing door? Had the pilot and guards just stepped out in mid-air? Ask imagined the prisoner, straining to follow whatever trumpet had called his captors away. Then shrieking in fear as the cockpit exploded in sizzling splinters, the engines shredded and died under the orbital strikes, and the plane had glided in to its final landing.

    He hoped the poor bastard had died in the landing, but suspected he might have starved chained to the seat.

    This also meant that people who had been unable to move from a position would not have been taken up by whatever had snatched everyone from Redghost’s surface. Prisoners? The few jails he’d visited had stood empty and open-doored. The guards had taken their captives with them. Hospital ICUs? That explained the several medical beds he’d found dragged into gardens and on outdoor walkways.

    Still, he knew where to look.

    Ask went back for his bolt cutters and freed the dead prisoner. He didn’t have a shovel and the ground was too cold to dig in anyway, but he spent two days making a rock cairn next to the airplane.

    “The second-to-last man on Redghost,” he said by way of prayer when he was done. His fingers were bruised and bloody, several of his nails torn. “You and I are brothers, though you never knew it. I wonder if you had it better or worse than those who were taken away.”

#

    October 11th, 2983 [RTS-ra]

    On the sixth year of his hegira, Aeschylus Sforza entered the city of Pelleton. He had not found a living animal indoors in five years. He had not found a living animal penned outdoors in over four. He had not seen evidence of a human survivor other than himself on the planet at any time. He had found six bodies in various improbable circumstances. The hardest had been a little girl locked in a closet with a piss pot and a water bottle. She’d obviously been there a long time before Day Zero. And a long time after.

    Ask devoutly hoped whoever had done that to a child had been taken directly to the lowest circle of whatever hell had opened up and swallowed the human race.

    In any case, he’d buried them all. And he obsessively checked closets after that child. It took more time, but what was time to a Howard walking home all by himself?

    Pelleton was located on an eastern curve of the Eniewetok Sea. It was the first city he visited with buildings over four stories tall. Some optimist had built a pair of fifteen-story office towers along the waterfront. By then, Ask had seen enough of the planet’s architecture and development to understand most people wanted it small and simple.

    Not so unlike the Tasmania of his youth. People who had wanted the big city moved to Melbourne or Brisbane or Sydney. People who wanted the big city here on Redghost had moved to Atarashii ?saka or taken up a line of work with off-planet demand.

    He’d taken up the habit of visiting airports first, when it was at least sort of convenient to do so.  Not just for the sake of any other trapped prisoners, though he’d never found another one of those. But rather, in hopes of finding something useful. Anything, really.

    The gasbags of the heavy-lift freighters were all long since draped in tatters from their listing semi-rigid frames, but he kept wondering if he’d find a fixed-wing aircraft or a gravimetric flyer that hadn’t been gutted by orbital kinetics. Not that Ask expected to build an engine or power pack with his bare hands, but it would have been a start.

    Most of the cockpits were smashed or shattered. Too many electronics in there. Likewise power systems. And in most cases, the airframes as well. He’d amused himself for a while calculating the total number of separate surface targets that had been subjected to bombardment by orbital kinetics in a single twenty-five point six-hour period - the local planetary day - and how many launchers that implied. How much processing power in guidance systems that implied.

    Ask had concluded that no power in human space had the resources to commit such a saturated attack. Not so quickly and thoroughly.

    That of course raised several more difficult questions. The one that concerned him most was whether this had happened to every human-settled planet in the Polity, or just to Redghost. He almost certainly would not have known if a spaceship or starship had called here since Day Zero. Short of catching a glimpse of it transiting in orbit, how would he find out? Not a single comm set on the planet still worked so far as he was aware.

    Was he not just the last human being on this planet, but the last human being in the universe? Ask couldn’t figure out if that thought was paranoia, megalomania or simple common sense. Or worse, all three.

    By now most of the airframes had acquired layers of moss, grass and in some cases, even vines. Another decade and there would be trees poking through the holes in the wings. He clambered around Pelleton’s airport all day without finding anything novel, then sheltered inside the little terminal as the dark of the evening encroached.

    The dog packs were getting worse all over. Sleeping outside at night was no longer safe as it had been in the early times after Day Zero. The question of weapons had re-entered his mind. Especially projectile weapons.

#

    June 6th, 2997 [RTS-ra]

    On the twentieth year of his hegira, Aeschylus Sforza began to compose epic poetry. His Howard-enhanced memory being by definition perfected, he had no trouble recalling his verse, but still he took the trouble to refine the rhymes and metre so that should someone else ever have call to memorize the tale of his walk home around Redghost, they could do so.

    Over the years he had found and buried twenty-three people. None of them appeared to have long survived Day Zero, as whatever confinement had prevented their ascendance had also prevented their continued life and health unattended by outside aid.

    The towns and cities were changing, too. Rivers in flood-damaged bridges and washed-out waterfronts. Storms blew down trees, tore off roofs and shattered those windows that had survived the orbital strikes. Plants, both native and Terranic, took over first park strips, lawns and open spaces; then began to colonize sidewalks, rooftops, steps, basement lightwells.

    The edges that civilization draws on nature were disappearing into a collage of rubble, splinters and green leaves.

    He’d spent the years hunting clues. He’d dug the payloads of the orbital kinetics out of enough wrecks and buildings to realize that he wouldn’t know much about them without a lot of lab work. In a lab he didn’t and could not have access to, of course, in the absence of electrical power. They appeared deformed, heat-stressed metalloceramic slugs about two centimeters in diameter that had probably been roughly spherical on launch. That left the question of guidance wide open.

    Likewise the various bodies he’d found. None of them told Ask any more than the dead prisoner had. Every human being who was physically able to do so had walked outside the afternoon or evening of April 27th, 2977 and vanished. Presumably along with their clothes and whatever they had in their hands at the time. He’d found plenty of desiccated sandwiches on plates and jackets hung on chair backs indoors, but nothing equivalent on the sidewalks and in the back yards of Redghost.

    The light show in the sky had subsided years earlier, though the occasional re-entry flare still caught his eye at night. He periodically found batteries and even small pieces of equipment that had survived both the orbital kinetics and the electronic pulse attack by dint of shielding either deliberate or accidental. So far he’d declined to carry those things with him, for fear that whatever it was might still be monitoring from orbit.

    And that was it.

    So one day he began to compose epic poetry. It was a thing to do while he passed the time hacking through vines and checking closets.

    I sing of the planet now lost

    Though still it spins through space…

    Homer he never would be, but who was there to sing to, anyway?

#

    April 23rd, 3013 [RTS-ra]

    On the thirty-sixth year of his hegira, Aeschylus Sforza finally began to take seriously the proposition that he had gone completely mad. He wondered if this had been true from the very beginning. Was he trapped in a decades-long hallucination, something gone badly wrong in his Howard-enhanced brain? Or was even the passage of time a cognitive compression artefact, like the illusory and deceptive time scales in dreams?

    Ask wasn’t sure it mattered, either way. He wasn’t even sure anymore if there was a difference.

    He was exploring the town of Tekkeitsertok, on a largely barren island in Redghost’s boreal polar regions. The journey to this place had required quite a bit of planning, and the use of a sailboat found intact due to its complete lack of electronics. Still, restoring the boat to seaworthiness had consumed over a year of his time.

    Time. The work had been something to do.

    Tekkeitsertok was a settlement of low, bunkered buildings, most of them with slightly rounded roofs to offset snow accumulation and present a less challenging profile to the winter winds howling off the largely frozen Northcote Sea on the far side of the island. Lichen now covered every exterior surface that hadn’t been buried in wind-blown ice and grit. The insides of the buildings where insulation had not failed were taken over by a fuzzy mold, so that everything looked slightly furry. Where insulation had failed, the interiors were just a sodden, rotting mess.

    Ask picked through the town, wondering why anyone had bothered to live here. Tekkeitsertok had probably been the most extreme permanent human habitation on Redghost. He’d decided some time ago not to worry about camp sites, research stations, and whatnot, so anyone who’d been out on the ice cap was on their own. Not that any ice station would have survived three and a half decades without maintenance. Even this place with its thick-walled air of permanence was already surrendering to nature.

    Nothing was here, of course. Not even in the closets, which Ask still conscientiously checked. He’d never found so much as a footprint of the attackers, but had held some vague notion that evidence might be preserved in the icy northern cold. Even in summer, this place was hostile - built on permanently frozen ground, flurrying snow every month of the local year.

    The moment of madness came when he was inside the town’s mercantile. The windowless buildings meant he had to use an oil lantern even with the endless summer daylight outside. That in turn produced strange, stark shadows between the warmly glowing pools of light. Racks of merchandise ranging from cold weather gear to snow-runner wheels crowded the retail space. Ask was pushing from aisle to aisle, watching for useful survival gear as much as anything in this place, when he heard an electronic chirp.

    He froze and almost killed the lantern. That was stupid, of course. Anyone or anything that might have been alerted to the light already had. Still, he turned slowly, mouth wide open to improve his hearing over the pounding of his heart. His blood felt curdled.

    The noise did not repeat itself.

    After standing in place for several minutes, he gave up on stillness as a strategy and headed for the sales counter. That was where any surviving equipment was likely to be.

    Three and a half decades after Day Zero, and now there was something else moving on this planet?

    Nothing.

    He found nothing. Ask tore the sales counter apart, looking in all the little drawers, even. He opened the access panel behind to the long-useless breaker boxes and comm line interchanges. He turned up the dry-rotted carpet. He yanked everything out from inside the display cases. He grabbed an axe from the tools section, though there wasn’t a tree within five hundred kilometers of this place, and chopped up the cases looking for whatever might be hidden inside them. He tried chopping the floor, but stopped when he nearly brained himself with the rebound of the axe.

    Panting, sick, shivering, Ask finally stopped. He’d trashed the interior of the place. In all the years of his wandering, he’d never stooped to petty vandalism. For all the windows he’d broken getting in and out of places, he’d never destroyed for the sake of the pleasure of destruction.

    Now, this?

    It’s not like they were coming back. Wherever they’d gone.

    With that realization, he took up the axe and charged through the mercantile screaming. A long pole of parkas collapsed under his blows, their insulation spinning like snow where they tore. He smashed a spinner rack of inertial compasses. Tents spilled and tore. Useless power tools went flying to crack against other displays or the outside walls. When he got to the lamp oils and camping fuels, he spilled those, too, then transferred the flame from his lantern to the spreading, glistening pools.

    After that, he retreated outside to the almost-warmth of the polar summer, that had cracked above freezing. Smoke billowed out from the open door of the mercantile. After a while, something inside exploded with a satisfying ‘whomp’. He watched a long time, but the roof never fell in.

    Finally Ask stretched in the cold and turned to wonder what he might do next. That was when he realized he had been surrounded by a patient dog pack. Furry, lean, with the bright eyes of killers, they had watched him watch the fire.

    “Hey there, boys,” he said softly. Though surely none of these remembered the hand of man. These were the descendants of the survivors, not the domestic escapees of the early years.

    One of the dogs growled deep in its throat. Ask regretted leaving his guns in the sailboat. Deliberately archaic collector’s items, they were all that worked anymore with the interlocks burned out on any rational, modern weapon.

    Not that he had much ammunition, either.

    And not that he had any of it with him.

    Knife in hand, he charged the apparent leader of the pack. It was good to finally have something to fight back against.

#

    November 1st, 3094 [RTS-ra]

    On the one hundred and seventeenth year of his hegira, Aeschylus Sforza returned to the Shindaiwa Valley. He’d buried forty-seven bodies in the years of his wandering. The last of them had been little more than heaps of leather and bones. The cities, towns and settlements he’d visited had largely buried themselves by the time he’d been to every human outpost he could possibly reach on this planet.

    He had not spoken a word out loud in thirty years. The epic poetry was not forgotten - with his Howard memory, nothing he meant to remember was ever forgotten - but he had not bothered with it in decades. The madness, well, it had stayed a long time. Eventually he’d grown tired even of that and retreated back to sanity. The track of that descent was marked in the number of burn sites across one whole arc of Redghost’s northern hemisphere.

    The dogs had failed to kill him. Wound infections had failed to kill him, though he’d come perilously close to dying at least twice. Even the ocean crossings had failed to kill him. Loneliness, that curse of the Howards, had failed to kill him.

    Boredom might, though.

    The Shindaiwa Valley had gone back to the land. Many of the houses still stood, but as rotting shells overgrown with weeds. Some things were more permanent than others. The railroad tracks, for instance. Likewise the plascrete shells of the hospital and the train stations.

    Ask had time. Nothing but time. So he set about using it. He needed a place to live, near water but not likely to be flooded out when summer thawed the snowcap at the head of the watershed. He needed to catch and break some of the wild horses that haunted these fields and forests to draw the plow. He needed to log out trees in some areas, and find saplings young enough for the project that had been forming in his mind for the past decade or so.

    He needed so much, and would never have any of it. Now that he was done walking home, Ask had nothing but time.

#

    March 17th, 3283 [RTS-ra]

    The demands of controlling the horses, not mention managing the pigs and goats he eventually took on, had brought Ask’s voice back to him. He’d become garrulous over the long years with those patient eyes staring back at him.

    He’d also been convinced he was the last man in the universe. In over three centuries since Day Zero, no one had come calling at Redghost so far as he knew. If the rest of the human race were still out there functioning normally, the planet should have been swarming with rescuers and Polity investigative teams in the first year or two. Or any of the decades since.

    Someone might have done a fly-by then hustled away. Ask knew he wouldn’t have been aware of that. But human beings could not leave a disaster alone. And Redghost, whatever else it had been, was definitely a disaster.

    He even had a little bit of electronics, having at one point taken a pair of pack horses back to his cave and retrieved his surviving equipment. The passive solar strips used on so many Shindaiwa Valley rooftops were still intact, and he worked out a sufficient combination of salvage parts and primitive electronics to keep a few batteries charged. Space-rated equipment lasted, at the least. He had steady light by which to read at night - Shindaiwa Valley had boasted two hundred and eleven surviving hardcopy books by the time he’d gotten around to salvaging those. Four of them were actual paper printings from the Earth of his childhood, three in English that he could read. Their unspeakably fragile pages were preserved in a monomolecular coating as family heirlooms.

    He’d read them all over and over and over. He could recite them all, and some years did so just to have something to say to the goats and horses - the pigs never cared so much for his voice.

    Still, reading and reciting those words written by authors long dead was the closest Ask could come to speaking to another human being.

    In the mean time, his project had matured. Blossomed into success, in a manner of speaking. He’d spent decades carefully surveying, logging and replanting, even diverting the courses of streams to make sure water was where he wanted it to be.

    When that had grown boring, he’d built himself a new house and barn. Living in the hospital had felt strange. The weight of souls there was stronger. Having his own home, one that none of the people before Day Zero had ever lived or worked or died in, had seemed important for a while.

    So Ask had built the house at the center of his project. Made a sort of castle of it, complete with turrets and a central watchtower. A platform for a beacon fire, just to make the point. It wasn’t high enough to see his work, but when he climbed the ridge at the eastern edge of the valley - the one he’d first come down in those confused weeks right after Day Zero - he could glimpse what his imagination had engineered.

    Eating a breakfast of ham and eggs the morning of March 17th, Aeschylus Sforza heard the whine of turbines in the air outside his home. Centuries of living alone had broken him of the habit of hurrying. He finished his plate a little faster than normal, nonetheless, and scrubbed it in the stone trough that was his sink. He pulled on his goatskin jacket, for the Shindaiwa Valley mornings could still be chilly in this season, and walked outside at a measured but still rapid pace.

    Ask had realized a long time ago that it didn’t matter who they were when they came. The unknown raiders who’d stripped this planet, the descendants of those taken up by the attackers, or his own people finally returned. When they returned, whoever they were, he’d wanted to meet them.

    That was why his house sat in the exact center of three arrows of dense forest, each thirty kilometers long and spaced one hundred and twenty degrees apart, each surrounded by carefully husbanded open pasture. A “look here” note visible even from orbit. Especially from orbit. Who the hell else would be looking?

    Outside his front gate a mid-sized landing shuttle, about thirty meters nose to tail, sat clicking and ticking away the heat of its descent. The grass around it smoldered. Ask did not recognize the engineering or aesthetics of the machine, which answered some of his speculations in the negative. It certainly did not display Polity markings.

    He stood his ground, waiting for whoever might open that hatch from within. His long walk was done, had been done for over two hundred years.

    Time for the next step.

    The hatch whined open, air puffing as pressure equalized. Someone shifted their weight in the red-lit darkness within.

    Human?

    It didn’t matter.

    He was about to learn what would happen next.

    Aeschylus Sforza was home.

# # #

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