Hi guys! I don’t want to give too much away on this story, so I’ll just say it was inspired by something I saw that made me think that some people are so gifted, it’s impossible for me not to think they somehow touch something divine. Let’s get right to it!
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“The Last One”
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
“House is secure. Transport ready to move out.”
The radio crackles. “Hold position. Swarm is on the move. Sending in remotes. Wait for all clear.”
I pull the helmet off my coversuit, look down, and frown.
This is ridiculous.
She’s a kid, eleven or twelve max, though no one could ever be a hundred percent certain anymore, with all the records gone. There are still lots of other people I can take care of in this shitstorm, people who can contribute, not hang around my neck like an anchor. They send me to grab her? She’s an anchor.
“What’s your name, kid?”
She’s shy, but not afraid. “Anna.”
“Well, Anna, do you know why I’m here?”
“Do you know what’s going on out there?”
She looks out the window. People are running into the streets, clutching this and that, their last few belongings. If cars still existed they’d try to take more. “No.”
“Oh boy.” I plop down next to her on the couch, a dingy, stained thing that just barely could be remembered as a couch, like everything else in this human relocation ghetto, the two of us just sitting here in the middle of the mayhem of a population evac, waiting for the all clear. I close my eyes and try to remember the couch in my apartment, back in Seattle, the bright red one that promised to look like a million bucks from the picture in the catalog, but never looked like more than the couple of hundred it cost me. It was a good couch, though, I had a lot of fun on that couch. Was that really just three years ago? Nancy? And the baby? Is that possible? It feels much more distant. But it also feels like yesterday. Or like right now. Like the past is reaching out and stabbing me in the heart.
“Mister, why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying. And it’s Corporal.”
“You are crying, Corporal.”
“Shut up, kid.” I wipe a sleeve across my eyes, shake the past back to where it belongs, where it can’t touch the now. This terrible now. The past can undo a man completely if it touches the terrible now.
“Corporal, are you taking me somewhere?”
“Yeah. But we gotta wait now. They’re fumigating.”
I wonder for a second if she knows what fumigating is, because this section of the ghetto wasn’t infested yet. And it’s not like she could turn on the local news to find out. Does she even remember what the news is? “Stickbugs are moving in fast, kid. Can’t stay here any more. Not safe.”
Someone looks in the kitchen window as they rush past. A siren blares in the distance. “Where is safe?”
I almost laugh. It’s one of those kid questions, totally innocent, with no good answer. I mean, the bunker will be safer than this, but ultimately, is there anywhere safe? We’re being exterminated. It would be funny if it wasn’t so grim, I mean they’re the size of cockroaches, those goddamned stickbugs, and we’re the ones being exterminated.
“Uh, it’s a place. Underground.”
“Is my Mom coming with us? She told me to stay put and seal the doors and windows. She said she’d be back.”
I bite my lip. Does she really not know? Can she really not see what’s coming? I look into her eyes, for the first time, and notice one is blue and the other one is gray. They’re filling with tears. “Kid. Anna. Listen. Which answer do you want?”
Her face falls into her hands and she leans into me and starts bawling. She knows.
Between her sobs, she asks, “Is… anyone… else…?”
“No. It’s just you. And me.”
She looks up at me, totally lost. “Why?”
“You’re on the list.”
Poor kid. So innocent. Too innocent. Somehow she’s been protected from all this, kept ignorant of the horrible reality. She has no idea why this strange man barged into her lonely house in the last livable quarter of the ghetto, storming around with a fire stick and a nanomite counter and a special sealer, and now why is he sitting here next to her, waiting to rush her, and only her, out into the obviously dangerous streets when her mother told her to stay put?
“You’re about to grow up, kid. Very fast. You ready?”
She rubs her eyes. Catches her heaving breaths. Sniffs. Nods.
“Okay. The list. There are certain people that, no matter what, need to live. Some of them are easy to figure out: the chemists, the engineers, the computer scientists, the leaders. But some of them, like you, I have no idea. They just tell me who to grab. It’s like we’re creating a seed bank, stashing away the seeds of humanity, for some barely promising future, the slimmest of possibilities, and someone put you on the list. Not even your mother was on the list. I couldn’t have taken her even if she was here. I’m sorry, kid.”
She sobs again. Then, “I think I know.”
“Yes. Why I’m on the list.”
She calms herself down, it takes a while, then stands up and reaches out to me. “Take my hand.”
I give her my hand, tentatively, for just a moment wondering if she’s on the list because she’s got some kind of magical healing power, maybe with her touch she can make this ghastly reality all go away, bring back the past, let it touch the now and cover it and obliterate the present, like it never happened.
But it’s just the hand of a twelve-year-old girl, guiding me to the stairs. “It’s up on the second floor, Corporal. Is it safe?”
I nod, the house is secure, and she pulls me by my hand up the stairs. I feel like we’re climbing into the past, and the future, at the same time. Then the fog that is my constant companion, the fog of war, parts for a moment, and I have a strange, positive sensation. And I realize I haven’t had a positive feeling in a long time. Weird.
The floor creaks and I double-check the windows. Outside, to the north, I can see a cloud of vapor erupting from one of the remote driverless fumigation trucks they sent in as backup. “We should be getting the all clear in a couple of minutes, kid. Make it quick. What do you have to show me?”
She crosses to the far end of the dusty bedroom, with me in tow, past a bed, to a large object covered in a blanket.
Suddenly fear grips me. Not knowing what’s under that blanket. Have the stickbugs figured out a way into our brains? Is this girl going to reveal some awful thing from my nightmares, then dissolve into nanomites and devour me? I let go of her hand and reach for my firearm.
She looks up at me, calm, sensing my irrational terror. “Corporal. It’s a piano.”
She pulls the blanket off, dramatically, and yes, it is a piano. An anachronism, this pristine, beautiful thing from the past, not belonging here at all in the middle of hell. I reach out to touch it, half believing it’s not real. But it is, and I run my finger along the polished black surface – when was the last time I touched something clean? – and I tap one of the keys. “Middle C.”
I remember my whole childhood in a wave at that instant, the piano lessons and the little concerts, I was never any good, but that didn’t stop my mother from crying her eyes out every time I performed, bursting with pride, even though all I secretly wanted was to play handball out behind the middle school with my friends. But she did let me go with my friends eventually, thank God, she was a good mom, and she let the piano fade from my life as I moved on to other, more important, things. She was gone, like everyone else, but she was a good mom.
“Yes, Corporal. Middle C. Now play three more notes. Any notes.”
“We don’t have time for this, kid. So you can play piano. Sorry to say it like this, but big deal. Let’s go.”
“Sir. It’s all I have to give. The only reason I might be on the list. Please.”
“Fine.” I quickly tap a B flat, a D sharp, and an A. “Now what?”
She sits down on the bench, looking up, thinking, and I can see gears turning in her little head. I look out the window again, and the cloud is getting closer. There’s muffled screaming and crying in the distance. People are dying. We should go now. But she’s sitting there, almost in a trance, and I don’t have the heart to interrupt her. It might be her last moments of peace, ever.
Suddenly she bolts straight, like she’s been taken over by a spirit, and I almost go for my firearm again.
But her fingers rest on the keys gently, and press down. Middle C, B flat, D sharp, and A. Four random notes. Over and over.
And then… time stops.
Music starts pouring through her fingers, into the piano, fast, filling the room with sound. The four notes I randomly played for her are becoming a song, a sonata, right before my eyes and ears. No, she’s not just playing piano. She’s composing intricate, perfect music on the fly. This simple young girl is pulling the past, and the future, into this very moment, creating something pure and beautiful, spontaneously. Channeling the very best of us, reaching out and taking the hand of the divine, and bringing heaven back to Earth. An angel.
I fall to my knees.
Then put my face in my hands and weep.
It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.
This kid needs to live.
The music stops, and as time starts to flow again, slowly, she turns to me, asking the question with her eyes.
In answer, I reach into my pocket and pull out a dollar bill. My last. It’s barely holding on, the poor thing, almost torn in half, not worth anything anymore, I just keep it around as a reminder of what we were, what we had. Something to hold on to. I rest it on the piano in front of her.
“It’s for you. They used to call it a ‘tip.’ Keep it.”
She gently cups the bill, like a wounded bird, and eases it into her jeans pocket. Looks up at me, through her tears, and smiles.
“Now let’s get you the hell out of here, Anna.”
I peek out the front door.
The transport is there, where I left it just minutes ago.
But everything’s gone to shit.
The fumigation trucks are stopped dead. Covered in nanomites. You can’t see them directly, the nanomites, but the surface of the trucks looks alive, shimmering almost. They’re definitely there. And the stickbugs won’t be far behind. Thank God there weren’t any drivers in these remotes, or we’d all be trying to cram into a transport with only two pods.
The people who were trying to evacuate are stopped, too. Laying there. You wouldn’t know by the looks of them that innumerable nanomites are going to work on their internal organs. They’re already dead, even if they’re still sneezing. I can see others peeking out their sealed windows, becoming aware that the invisible death is coming for them next.
“Shit. Hurry. Put this on.” I help Anna climb into the second coversuit, it’s way too big, and pull over the helmet. “Fumigation didn’t work. Must be a breach in the perimeter. Or they’ve adapted. Oh God help us if they’ve adapted. Damn. Damn.”
No time to whine. I zip her up, press down all the flaps, hit the suit’s clear button. A little whoosh, then the air starts to flow. “Anna. There’s a filter on your chest. That needs to stay clear. It’ll automatically do it, but if you see anything get on that filter sweep it off. You hear me?”
She nods, shaking.
I tap my shoulder radio. “Command. Fumigation failed. Request backup transports.”
Static. Then silence.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
I take a deep breath, then open the front door, and immediately I feel the familiar rush of the nanomites. I turn to see Anna gasping for air. I reach out. “Anna. Calm down. It’s okay. I should’ve told you. Those are nanomites. With your suit on they can’t do anything, just keep an eye on your filter to make sure it’s clear. Here, take my hand.” She reaches up and breathes deep. I open the passenger pod and lift her in, and climb in to the driver pod and slam both lids closed. Then I toggle the “clear” switch. A blast of vapor rids each pods’ interior of the tiny nanomites. For now.
“We’re fine. This transport is designed for people, so it’s more secure than the remote fumigation trucks.” I look at the three trucks, and wonder if I’m telling the truth.
“I don’t want to die!” she pleads from inside her pod, looking down at the bodies in the street.
“You’re not going to die, Anna. We’re just going to drive, fast as hell, and get in front of the swarm, there’s a checkpoint five miles west of here.”
“My next door neighbor!”
“It’s too late, Anna!”
“No, look! His door is still sealed! He’s inside!”
“Kid. Look at these people. It’s too late for them. Grab you and go. That’s the order. Orders keep you alive.” I rev the engine, spitting uncountable nanomites out the exhaust pipe, and throw the stick into first gear.
She punches the clear pod cover, glaring at me. Those eyes. One blue and one gray. More tears.
“Dammit, kid. This transport only holds the grabber and the grabbee. Look. Two pods. Two people. Period. You’re going to get both of us killed.” It’s impossible, this argument, but she wins with those eyes. Damn. “How old is he?” How big?”
“Five. He’s tiny.”
“Okay. Pull out that bag behind your head. We don’t have another suit, but we can put him in the bag, he’ll be safe, and have enough air for the five-mile trip, and I think we can squeeze him onto your lap. As soon as we enter the house, I’ll grab him and you lay the bag open so I can put him in. I’m opening the door in three seconds. Understand?”
I back up the transport, much faster than any transport should ever be backed up, to the next, identical dingy house, and skid to a stop. There are lights on, that’s a good sign, but I don’t see anyone inside.
I open the pod doors and Anna and I jump out and race to the house. In the swiftest motion possible, I peel back the front door’s seal and throw it open, running in and slamming it behind us. There, in the kitchen, is Charlie.
And someone else.
Anna runs into her arms.
“Honey! I said I’d be back. I was just coming to get Charlie. His parents… he’s alone.” She looks at me. “Who is this? What the hell is going on? They told us this section was clear. Safe. To live normal.” She looks out the window and screams.
I bark at both of them. “No time to explain. Anna. Roll out the bag. Charlie. In!”
I look from Anna, helping Charlie get inside the bag, to the mom.
My orders were to bring the kid to the bunker.
Just the kid.
I was ready for this. Orders are orders.
But I hear her piano in my head, the music, and feel that strange positive feeling again, and I don’t know what happens, I just sort of let go.
“Here.” I take off my helmet and quickly slip out of my coversuit, handing it to her. “Hurry. Put it on.”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Do it! Now!”
“I don’t understan-”
“Listen, lady! Your section was still clear. But the swarm shifted last night. Don’t you hear the evac alarms?”
She just stares at me, numb.
I shake her. “Lady, listen. The evac failed. Fumigation didn’t work. The nanomites are here.”
Her eyes widen with horror as she looks down at her own body. There’s nothing visible, but I can tell she’s feeling them, as I am, like fleas crawling on our skin. I stuff her legs into the suit while she stands there, zombie-like, either not realizing how close we all are to death, or already assuming it.
I turn her chin so we’re eye to eye. “Do you know how to work a clutch?”
She nods blankly.
“Good. When you close the doors to the transport pods, there’s a little toggle switch marked ‘clear.’ Switch it to ‘on.’” I clamp on her helmet. Press the suit’s clear button.
The little whoosh wakes her from her haze. “Wait. What are you telling me?”
“You’re driving. Now go!”
I push her, and Anna, and carry Charlie, crying in his sealed bag, outside to the transport.
Wow. So this is what a full blast of nanomites feels like when you don’t have a suit on.
I stuff the kids into their pod, God, they don’t even fit but I make them, and I use my shoulder to shut the cover. The mom climbs into hers and I shut her in.
They look out at me, Anna and her mother, realizing that the strange man who just barged into their lives isn’t coming with them, and desperation and fear spread across both their faces.
I tap on the window and yell. “Just toggle the ‘clear’ switch! Then drive west five miles to the checkpoint! Tell them to send back another transport! I’ll be waiting in your house! I’ll be fine!”
They nod, accepting my lie as truth, and I calmly walk back to Anna’s house as I hear the transport gun its engines and speed away, avoiding the rest of my fellow corpses lying in the way. I enter, reseal the door – not that it’ll help at this point – and make my way to the second floor bedroom, the one with the piano in the corner.
I get that little tickle in my throat, the one they tell you about, and sneeze. Once you start sneezing, well, it’s time.
I sit down and play middle C, B flat, D sharp, and A. I can’t turn those notes into anything better, not like that kid Anna did, God that was beautiful, but that wasn’t what I was here for. I did what I was here for, I think. So I play a little halting Minuet in G instead. Huh. I actually can’t believe I remember it at all, but it comes back to me, something nice from the past, and I have that strange positive feeling one last time, and I realize it’s hope, and I smile.
I hope you enjoyed that short story. A little background: it was inspired by a YouTube video I saw, a 60 Minutes segment on this child prodigy piano and violin player named Alma Deutscher. The special thing about Alma isn’t that she can play the piano and violin, although she is a virtuoso at both. It’s that she can take four random notes and compose, spontaneously, a piano sonata using those four notes. She’s written operas and concertos, and she’s only thirteen, it’s crazy. For me at least, it was impossible to watch the video and not feel like certain people among us are so gifted that they’re touching something divine.
Thank you again for tuning in to Listen To The Signal. Until next time, this is Rob Dircks. I’m the author of Where the Hell is Tesla?, The Wrong Unit, and Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff! (Where the Hell is Tesla? Book 2). You can find my audiobooks at audible.com, and my ebooks and paperbacks at Amazon.com. You can also pre-order my next novel, an Audible Original audiobook, at Audible.com. It’s titled You’re Going to Mars!, and it’ll be published on November 13, 2018.
Copyright ©2018 Rob Dircks