- Sci-fi comic about ancient things people find in melting icebergs
SHE SAID NO
“What do you mean, ‘No’?” Rand yelled, slamming his fist on the table. “We’re the last people on this cursed planet! We haven’t heard from Earth in decades so we might as well be the last people ever! It’s not a situation where you can be picky! Damn! I tried to be nice with you, you, an ugly bitch, a lab rat no one would ever look at if you weren’t the last woman in the whole world! You know what? I’m done with niceties! You’re going with me. From now on, you will do whatever I say and…”
“No,” Zoe repeated and made a step back, a very small, very careful step as if she were dealing with a predator ready to pounce, not a human being.
She and Rand grew up together, sharing the uneventful childhood all colony kids had and parting their ways after school (Rand joined the military, Zoe kept studying to become a scientist). They had never been friends, those two: a popular handsome boy and a plain-looking bookish girl. They hardly ever spoke, even as kids. And after, when things had gone to hell…
“Stupid woman!” Rand growled. “You think I like it? Being stuck with you? Have you even looked at yourself in the mirror?”
“I did.” Zoe tried to speak slowly despite her racing heart. She made another tiny step back. “I’m ugly. And old. I know. So just leave me alone. Please, Rand.”
“Still… you are better than nothing…” a sinister smile crept onto his face. “And having children with you is better than letting the human race die out.”
“Two people is not enough for creating a stable population,” Zoe shook her head, her voice ice-cold, her gaze steady. “Believe me, I’m a geneticist. You won’t save humanity this way, you’ll just delay the extinction a little bit. Inbreeding is...”
Ironically, of all things Zoe had said, this was the one that triggered Rand.
There was a table in his way, a heavy five-legged thing that Zoe had hoped would slow him down. Rand threw the table aside, terrifying in his adrenaline-boosted rage, and charged. Just about two metres of space, all won by careful, tiny steps back Zoe had made, was all that separated them now. Time slowed down to a pace of a bad dream, as thick as jelly, so painfully slow that Zoe could see all her life flash before her eyes while she was taking a loaded gun from her pocket. She pointed it at Rand and pulled the trigger, shooting him point-blank in the chest. The last bullet in the whole colony! She had been keeping it for herself...
Zoe didn’t stay in the room even a second longer, neither to check whether Rand was dead nor to try to help a fellow wounded human. All her thoughts wiped out by terror, she ran away, as fast as she could, as far as she could.
Shards and blood. Darkness and flashing lights… Rand’s memory was a mess. One second, he remembered everything, the next, he was picking up pieces again, trying to recall what had happened, but he never stopped moving. Like a drone set on autopilot, he dragged his dying body with a barely flickering conscience to the medbay. He knew the way. It wasn’t far. It only seemed like an endless road, like a hamster wheel, spinning without an end, only seemed, because his agonizing mind was running in circles...
Rand’s last memory was of him slowly drowning in a healing tank, of his pain reluctantly yielding to painkillers, of warnings flickering on the medbay terminal’s screen. Then he passed out. For how long? He didn’t know.
The beeping of a medbay alarm woke him up. The terminal was frantically trying to warn somebody about a malfunction of some kind. There was no one to respond, of course, so the colony AI took over. After a brief second of calculations, it decided to wake Rand up and empty the healing tank. The moment the man fell out of it, the power went off, leaving him in darkness.
The air smelled of dust. It was cold in the room. A thin ray of sunlight filtered through the dirty window. Without power, the medbay looked like a tomb. And it would become Rand’s tomb if he didn’t get out of here soon, he realized.
He touched the place where his wound had been. There was a scar now. Good. At least the tank had done its job. How long had it taken? Rand had no clue. Must have been months: him now having a bushy beard kind of hinted at that. He was lucky to be alive at all, with all the malfunctions the medbay had been beeping about from the start.
It was getting colder by the minute. The colony - a maze of machines built to cradle human civilization on this planet - was dead and the warmth was leaving its ruined body, rapidly. Rand walked the echo-haunted corridors in the dark, counting turns and steps as he went and constantly updating the map in his head when he found a collapsed passage or a heap of garbage on the floor that blocked a door. Someone had looted the place, a long time ago. Who were they? Other people? The thought invoked a strange feeling in Rand’s mind: a dry, crunchy mix of hope and dread.
The looters, whoever they were, had left little behind. Rand managed to find a thin felt coat, a torn blanket, and a roll of tarp. No food. No weapons. No fuel. He still had his knife. His clothes, drenched in medical fluid though they were, seemed good enough. But that was all.
He had to leave this place. The survival game was on. Hunting, foraging, moving from place to place, trying to make fire the caveman’s way would be his life now. Unless he found those other people, the looters, whoever they were.
It was summer when Rand had entered the medbay. Now, it was deep winter, as cold and merciless as winters can be on planet Wrath. It would be enough to kill an untrained human but Rand wasn’t one; his military training was finally paying off. He’d left the dead colony with almost nothing; a week later, he walked the snowy plains clad in a fluffy fur coat and leather boots made from hides of the animals he’d hunted and killed, first with his knife alone, then with a makeshift slingshot, and finally, with a longbow.
Physically, the man thrived. Mentally… not so much.
Rand no longer looked at his reflection in ice and water: he hated seeing that bearded savage there that didn’t resemble his former self at all. The life of a hermit used to have its charm for him when he was a kid and was into vids about adventures and survival but now he wanted nothing else but to live among people again. A little tribe made of his own children birthed by his own woman; a gang of looters - anything would do. Wherever Rand went, he desperately kept looking for signs of others but found nothing but snow-drifted ruins and rusty machines. Sometimes, a place he found had a comfortable shelter and teemed with wildlife but he still moved on, continuing his search for other people. Without them, life seemed meaningless, meat had no taste, rest brought no joy.
Reluctantly at first, Rand started talking to himself, assuming different roles, making up stories. Some part of him knew that this was a sign of degradation, of insanity looming on the horizon, but he couldn’t help it. Once he even made a “friend” from sticks and dry grass, a straw doll, roughly human-shaped, gave it a name and had a long conversation with it about the meaning of life. In the end, he came to hate himself for slipping like that and burned the thing… But burning it didn’t make him feel better, quite the contrary: at this point, it felt like murder.
A year passed, then another one. Rand kept moving, muttering to himself, dreaming of people, seeing things in the dark that he knew weren’t real.
He stopped counting years after he ran out of fingers on his hands for doing that. “Many” was the word he used for them now, an all-purpose word as dark and deep and full of uncanny echoes as an abandoned well.
Rand thought of Zoe often, almost every day. Not knowing what had happened to his last chance of having a normal life was driving him mad. She definitely wouldn’t like his idea of “normal”, though. It wasn’t nice even back then, before the medbay; it became even worse now, with all the wild, insane things brewing in Rand’s mind. If he only had someone to talk to besides his straw dolls, he might have seen how ugly and twisted his thoughts were. But he hadn’t, so every conversation he had with himself under the cold, cruel stars of the alien world only reinforced whatever he thought, whatever he said. He lived in an echo chamber and human mind, being a social thing, is not used to dealing with echo chambers, not made to function properly in isolation.
His former self, a civilized man capable of reasoning, was still alive somewhere deep in Rand’s raving mind. He resurfaced sometimes but hid again, terrified. As much as he desired to find other people, he dreaded finding them, aware of what a dangerous mess he had become.
Rand was standing on top of a hill. He’d climbed there for a better view of the surroundings and what a view he got! It had been over an hour already, but he couldn't move. Shocked, mistrustful of everything he saw, smelled, and felt, Rand waited for the vision to either disappear into thin air or prove itself to be real.
There was a village beyond the forest. People were walking between the houses built of stone and wood, recycled metal and glass. Smoke was rising from the chimneys. Sometimes, on a whim of the wind, Rand smelled bread and meat someone was cooking. Was it a hallucination? Had he finally gone insane?
He waited. Usually, weird things he saw disappeared after a while to prove they weren’t real. That village didn’t.
Rand had been dreaming of that moment for many years, “many” being much more than ten, but now he felt even more lost than ever. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He felt warm tears roll down his face and turn into icicles in his beard. Hours passed and he still stood there…
What broke the paralysis was a feeling too real to dismiss: a feeling of being watched, hunted. Slowly, grasping his axe, Rand turned around.
A young woman stood behind him, clad in furs and armed with a long knife and a bow. Zoe?
She looked exactly like her! But slimmer, more fit, more… beautiful. It took Rand some time to recall the word. This “Zoe” looked like those many years had not touched her at all.
There was no fear in her eyes, either. She seemed surprised and curious.
“Who’re you?” she asked, tilting her head.
Rand grunted, a sense of bitter irony piercing his mind. She didn’t recognize him. Well, no wonder: he barely recognized his own reflection.
“The last man in the world,” he answered with a smile. What a sight it must have been! Some teeth were rotten, some were missing…
The woman didn’t flinch from the sight. There was nothing but pity in her eyes. Nothing but pity, not even a hint of recognition.
“Come with me,” she said and pointed at the village below.
For a moment, Rand froze. Things his wild self wanted to do with this woman, even if it meant never living in society again… The primal urge was hard to resist. It took him all he had left from his civilized past to soothe the wild beast he was sharing his mind with now.
“You are the last man ever,” he told the beast. “Be patient and you will have as many women as you like. They will come to you willingly.”
The beast fell silent for a while. Free of his grasp, Rand followed the woman down the hill, towards the smoking chimneys, baking bread, and people, so many people…
They all looked the same! Old crones, middle-aged women, young women, kids… To be precise, there were two versions of them - one had slightly lighter hair and was a head taller than the other - but every damn person in this village was Zoe. Huntresses, cooks, a smith, pregnant mothers, little girls playing tag in the streets… Zoe, Zoe, Zoe… That ugly lab rat repeated over and over in every face, in every age group… What the hell was going on there? What the hell…
People froze in their tracks and stared at Rand as he passed them, following his silent guide. Some gestured to each other, discussing the matter in sign language. Rand didn’t know it so he had no idea what they were saying. Probably nothing good, judging by their frowning faces. Halfway through the village, a group of armed women joined the huntress he was following. They had old, shabby-looking guns with them as well as knives and bows. Was he a guest of honour or a prisoner now? Most likely the latter.
The guide stopped by a long, tall building that had a lot of metal parts in it. Wires, as twisted and ugly as dead worms, ran from its roof to the ground and spread from there like a fan to the nearby houses. There must have been a solar battery up there. They had electricity! Not bad for a bunch of savages.
“The Great Mother will speak with you in the main hall,” said Rand’s guide. “Surrender your weapons before you enter.”
Rand obeyed. It wasn't like he had much of a choice at this point. Disarmed, he entered the building, followed by the armed women.
Inside, the ugly building shone with vibrant colours. There were stained glass windows in the ceiling. Pillars of intricately carved stone supported the arched roof. A beautiful, neatly made mosaic decorated the floor. The building must have been the centre of social life in the village: a school, a library, a dining hall, and a dance room all rolled into one. A small class of teenage girls lifted their eyes from their textbooks and looked at Rand, surprised, puzzled, disgusted. Yes, those youngsters were not as good at hiding their emotions as the older women outside were; all the thoughts they had about the filthy stranger (and his smell) clearly showed on their faces.
He had expected a throne or something, with the original Zoe (who else could their Great Mother be?), even uglier and fatter than he remembered her, sitting upon it with a golden goblet in her hands and a triumphant grin on her face. But there was nothing of the sort. The huntress that had found Rand, showed him to a quiet corner separated from the main hall by beaded curtains where an extremely old woman, as wrinkled and shrivelled as a dried apple, was sitting at the table with a cup of tea in her gnarly hands. There was only one chair. No one offered another to the guest. The conversation wasn’t going to be private either: the armed women remained at Rand’s side, as grim and ready to spring into action as before.
“Hello again, Rand. Long time no see,” said the crone, confirming his suspicions. It was her. Zoe. The lab rat. And she looked like she was over a hundred years old. Rand had stopped counting years a long time ago but he felt young enough, he couldn’t have been much older than forty now. Although… it suddenly occurred to him that he had never thought about the time he’d spend in the medbay. Could it have been years? Yes… it all made sense now: the error the computer so frantically signalled about, the state of the colony, the unexpected winter, the rusty ruins everywhere…
“Hi, Zoe,” he answered in the growl his voice had turned into after many years of disuse and added, “You look like shit.”
The crone laughed. Sipped her tea.
“Big words from a dirty savage,” she commented. “I recognized you only because you’re clearly a man and there is only one man left on this planet.”
“Yes.” Rand gave her a dark look. “One man and many women.” He hoped the hint was clear enough. “Who are they? Your clones?”
“Of course not, silly,” Zoe shook her head. “The colony had no cloning facilities, remember?”
The word rang no bell to Rand.
“Asexual reproduction,” explained Zoe. “Quite common for many species on Earth. Uncommon for humans. But not impossible. It had been done before in other mammals and I had plenty of spare time to study the results and techniques. There was no code of ethics to stop me either, with all philosophers and lawmakers dead and me being the only test subject. To make a long story short: I found a local virus that triggers parthenogenesis in humans when introduced into the body a certain way. Had nearly died from it. Refined the method later so it would be safe to use at will. Removed the obstacles that could terminate the abnormal pregnancy. And here we are.” She moved her wiry hand in a wide gesture, inviting her guest to take it all in: the society, the civilization… where he had no place. “Each of my descendants carries half of my genes, that half being doubled to fill the gap where a man’s half of genes should have been. This is why some of my recessive traits are showing: deafness and fair hair, for example. But it’s not a big deal; just teaching everyone sign language solved the problem. Another good thing about having a parthenogenetic population is that any harmful mutation gets eliminated right away, without a single chance to hide. Evolution happens as well, only we drive it now...”
“You lied to me,” Rand hissed. “You told me that two people wouldn’t be enough to restore humanity. And now you make do with just one?”
“I didn’t take parthenogenesis into account back then. It was an accidental idea, a crazy idea. I’d been thinking of what you said, of saving humanity and all. I even considered your ‘offer’ as a possibility for a while. This is why I didn’t kill you the moment I found you in the medbay.” Zoe paused, sipped her tea again. Her eyes clouded for a moment, then she shook her head, probably chasing unpleasant memories away. “The idea of letting you wake up was too disgusting, though, considering what you’d tried to do to me. So I kept prolonging your stay again and again, until I no longer needed you anymore.”
Rand felt hot blood rush to his face and his fists clench as a cold, cruel understanding was growing in his mind.
“You bitch…” he muttered under his breath but the acoustics of the hall played a joke on him: the phrase could be heard quite well.
One of the armed women at his left, a fair-haired one, made a questioning sign to Zoe. Zoe answered with several signs of her own. The matter was settled, at least for the moment.
“Rand.” Zoe tilted her head. There was neither anger nor disgust in her voice. She spoke to him as if he were a damn kid that had neglected his homework or something. “You tried to rape me, remember? Wanted to break me, make me your slave. Build a society on that basis, too. A society that, had it survived, would have repeated the darkest ages of old Earth. It may be a no-brainer to you but to me choosing between extinction and that option was a real struggle. In the end, I chose extinction. Couldn’t bring myself to kill you, though. You were defenceless in that tank… So I simply hacked the system and cranked the settings the way up. I froze you in time, so to say, doomed you to eventually die in your sleep. Then I got gravely ill and pregnant, had to deal with a lot of things... Made a discovery, raised three daughters, moved away from the colony for a better climate… To make a long story short, I forgot about you.”
“Okay. I got it.” Rand interrupted her. “I’m sorry, okay?”
Zoe made no reply.
“Are you?” she asked after a while.
That was a good question. The question both the civilized and the wild parts of Rand hated, because the answer was ‘No’, but that wasn’t the kind of answer that would give either of them what they wanted.
“I was desperate, you set me off, I got angry… Sorry for that,” he grumbled, hiding his eyes. “Listen… Zoe…” saying her name left a bad taste in his mouth. “You did a good job here, I give you that. But you told me yourself that half of your girls are flawed… recessive traits or something. You all need a man, for variety’s sake if nothing else. So let’s get over our old grudge and make it work.”
A mirthless smile touched Zoe’s lips. She put her teacup down, slowly, gingerly, without a sound.
“You don’t understand, Rand,” she said. “Can’t you see? The new world doesn’t need you. I found a way to avoid the dark ages and save humanity at the same time. Why would I want to ruin something like this?”
Rand wanted to say something, no, to roar something but the old woman raised her hand, silencing him. What was she going to say? For some reason, he had hoped, hoped against all odds, that it was all a game, a show-off to satisfy her wounded pride, and that she would accept his offer after that. Because, really, what else was there to do? He was the last man on this damn planet! He was irreplaceable! He was…
“Farewell, Rand,” she said softly and the world went dark.
Waking up was painful. But, like Rand’s veteran grandfather used to say, if you’re hurting, it means you’re alive, soldier. He was alive all right, even relatively unhurt. His head buzzed like an angry beehive, though. There was a tight bandage on it to hint at why.
Rand raised himself on one elbow and looked around. The landscape looked unfamiliar: wide plains dotted with sickly alien plants; sharp, snowy mountain summits on the horizon. The air smelled strange here, unnatural. It made Rand’s mind tingle with a sense of weak, subsurface recognition. There obviously was a match in his memory for that smell but it was an old, deeply buried match. The brain needed some time to dig it out. Rand decided to leave it to its job. He had nowhere to hurry anyway.
Slowly, the recent events were coming back together in his injured head. Zoe. No, Zoeys, a whole village of them. The argument. Then him being hit on the head from behind… and dragged here while unconscious. Damn bitches…
Rand looked around, searching for his things. They were all here, plus extra.
He pulled the unfamiliar bag closer and opened it. It was full of parting gifts. Dry rations, soap bars, a basic medkit, a set of clean clothes, small things like needles and threads, scissors and combs... Some stupid child had even thrown her rag doll into the pile.
Rand felt hatred flare up in his chest again. Being exiled, no, thrown away like trash hurt. But seeing that bag of parting gifts hurt even more.
“You know what I’m going to do, bitches?” he muttered, glaring at the smiling rag doll, seething with wrath. “I’m going to hunt down every single adult from your shitty village, one by one. I’ll be your worst nightmare, a cannibal monster lurking in the woods, mark my words. And then I’ll take your kids…”
The rest of his plan included him building a new world, a better world, where he is a king and every woman knows her place. The last word said, he looked at the doll again. Buttons for eyes. Smiling face. Straw stuffing crunching under his fingers…
Rand snapped. For hours he was raving, crying, laughing, then raving again non-stop. He tore apart the doll and stamped it into the ground, then mended it and wrapped it in a spare shirt from the parting gift bag, then threw it away and spat on it, then picked it up gingerly and wept over it like a baby… All those years of dreaming and searching, of silence and one-way philosophy talks, of loneliness - they were coming out now in a very strange way.
Finally, Rand collapsed on the ground, exhausted, and fell into a fretful sleep, the smiling doll still clutched in his hands.
It was the next morning when he woke up, refreshed and much more sane. He quenched his thirst with water from his own flask and his hunger with dry rations from the Zoeys’ bag and stood up, looking determined. His subconscious had been working overnight on that distant memory of his and now produced the result.
That smell. It was what a place where a certain type of explosives had been used smelled like!
With a new goal in sight, Rand packed his things, tucked the doll into his belt and followed the smell to its source. The smell led him to a small tunnel in the mountain he had woken up below. That must have been the way the Zoeys’ used to carry him there. Then they’d blown it up to cut Rand off their lands. It all made sense now.
“You bought yourselves some time, true,” he said after spitting at the pile of rubble. “But it won’t help you much. I’ll find the way. Right…” he paused, glancing at the doll, thinking of a name for it, “Zoe?”
A bus was slowly making its way through the woods, puffing smoke and crunching young ice on the puddles of the twisty road. Ellen always enjoyed those slow trips in and out of the countryside. Dreamy landscapes dominated the view, the bus was swaying softly to and fro like a giant cradle; there was hushed chatter in the back and a quiet muttering of radio in the driver’s compartment… Every element here contributed to the cosiness of the situation. It felt like being lost in time and space but in a very pleasant way.
Ellen was a little less relaxed that day, though, for she carried an unopened letter (real paper, not an e-mail!) in her backpack and was eager to read it. So, as soon as she’d made herself comfortable in a shabby bus seat, she did exactly this.
Have you watched that ancient Earthean documentary I’d told you about? Well, I hope you have because otherwise, you won’t understand half of the words I’m going to use to describe what we’re working on here.
Well, I warned you! Proceed at your own risk!
We found a curious passage in a mountain near Sweet Home Museum (you do know about Sweet Home, right? It’s a reconstruction of the first village founded after the Collapse). It was a typical lava tube, majestic-looking, full of curious rock formations as well as ancient paintings and carvings. Its initial purpose is still up for debate but what interested me specifically was the mystery of why such a place had been suddenly abandoned, and in what a way! Someone had used powerful (probably pre-Collapse era) explosives to create a cave in as if to seal something behind it.
The very idea of clearing the rubble and unknowingly releasing some ancient evil gave me creeps (just don’t tell anyone) but I told my team to go on with it anyway. It took us a month. A whole month! With all the heavy machinery that I had ordered from the city.
And now imagine the picture: the last load of rubble is removed, light is shining through the crack, I rush there, as reckless as a stupid kid… and my level-headed, adult colleagues follow me in the same manner. And what do we see? A whole army of armed people and a row of pre-Collapse era battle machines pointing their weapons at us!
I must confess, I raised my hands in an ancient “I surrender, please don’t kill me!” gesture. And my colleagues followed. Facepalm. Shame-shame-shame… Sorry.
So, we stood like this for a while, our hearts pounding like crazy, until we noticed that there was neither sound nor movement at the enemy’s side. They were all made of stone and driftwood and clay smeared over dry grass! Can you imagine that! Hundreds of soldiers! Dozens of machines! They were very crudely made, as we noticed when we approached them, their creators were obviously not professional sculptors, but those things did look real from a distance.
We moved our camp behind the “enemy lines”, as we called the group of statues, and started exploring the surroundings. The things we found, Ellen! Oh my!
There was a whole “city” in the caves nearby. There was a huge throne - a hideous thing made of rocks and clay and covered with rotten animal pelts that crumbled into dust if somebody touched them. There were torture chambers and royal kitchens, shooting ranges and diners, computer rooms and temples, theatres with dozens of seats… Why did I put the word “city” in quotes? Because it was fake. Things I’ve just described, they were only crudely made decorations, non-functioning copies of things someone had most likely not even seen firsthand. Fruits of unhealthy imagination, abominations spawned by a delirious mind, poorly reconstructed memories with no understanding of how things worked... The whole place gave us creeps, Ellen. There was that cold, paralysing terror in the air, the type you feel when watching an ancient horror movie.
And dolls… There were so many dolls there, all human-sized, all made of animal bones and mummified flesh glued together with tar, wrapped in furs and rags for clothes. Some had clay masks for faces, some had no faces at all. They all depicted different scenes of work, war, entertainment, and various forms of cruelty too.
For now, we don’t know what to make of this macabre museum. Who’d made it? Why? It’s as terrifying as it is fascinating! We’ll keep digging until we find the truth, I can promise you that! By the way, we’d love to see you again, dear! Can you drop by when you have time? Pretty please! We miss you.
Yes. Ellen had a dad. It was a long story.
One day, someone on Earth remembered about the lost colony on Wrath and made a ruckus about it, loud enough for the Archaeology League to send an expedition. Yes: Archaeology League. No one expected the colony lost three centuries ago to be alive and kicking. The expedition was a low-budget one: just a family couple - two scientists: a wife and a husband - in a small spacecraft with a simple cryochamber and a spartan living module. The idea behind sending a family was to increase the team’s morale, as well as their chances of staying sane in the loneliness of the space.
Danielle and Vasily - the archaeologists from Earth - were surprised, to put it mildly, to find a thriving civilization on Wrath instead of overgrown ruins, and what a civilization! The descendants of Zoe the Great Mother achieved wonders with what little they had: just a set of genes from a single woman. Their magpie-like approach to genes of local species, their traditional passion for genetics, their wide views on human beauty - all that shaped their culture and biology in a curious way. The party that greeted the newcomers at the landing pad had members with violet eyes and rainbow hair, various skin colours and patterns, and a wide range of beautiful voices.
Ellen always felt so ordinary compared to the natives...
She was a natural child of Danielle and Vasily, born under the sun of Wrath, raised among the daughters of Zoe. They were good to her and she loved them, just felt out of place a little. Her dad? The only man on the planet? He didn’t change much. Genes? Take them, add them to the community’s gene pool, you’re welcome! Intimacy? No thanks, ladies, you’re all gorgeous but I love my wife and want no one else. Same with Ellen’s mum: she said that a lot of women were interested in her as well but she always declined their intimate offers. They were an odd pair, her parents, a lovely odd pair.
Ellen folded the letter carefully and put it in her inner pocket, closer to her heart. She missed them both, mom and dad. Why not visit them, really? Why not spend her vacation on a dig site as she used to when she was a child? She’d been working hard all summer and deserved a little break, after all. And she really needed to clear her head before diving into her studies and experiments again.
So it was decided!
What would it take to go there? A bus to Sweet Home Museum, then a short walk to the nearest charging station to rent a scooter, then a several hours’ ride… and probably an even longer walk if the road becomes too bumpy… Okay, okay, maybe she needed to rent a camping tent too, just in case…
She knew about the army but the moment she actually saw it still took her breath away. It did look like a threat in the reddish, slanting rays of the setting sun.
“Spooky, isn’t it?” Ellen heard her mother’s voice and turned to embrace her. Her father was there as well.
There were greetings and hugs, smiles and jokes, and energetic exchange of the latest news - everything you can expect from a happy family reunion. Ellen, Danielle, and Vasily walked past the gloomy statues, shattering the illusion of danger with their bright mood and careless chatter. They were just oversized toys up close, those statues, toys made by a giant, angry child or someone else of similar strength, skill, and mindset.
That night, at dinner, Ellen heard of her parents’ latest findings at the dig site, the ones that had happened after she received the letter.
“We found the creator of the Macabre City, as we now call the place,” said Vasily, frowning. That was strange. Usually, any discovery made his eyes shine, made him as happy as a child on his birthday. Now, he seemed sad.
“So a single woman did all this? Wow…” said Ellen.
“Not a woman.” Vasily shook his head. “A man.”
“You mean… a pre-Collapse hermit of some kind?” Ellen leaned forward, intrigued both with the mystery and with her father’s reaction to it.
“We sent his remains to the lab,” Danielle took the lead. “The man was born before the Collapse, yes, but died more than a hundred years after it. His body was a complete ruin by the time he died. He had no teeth left, was suffering from tuberculosis, there were signs of poorly healed fractures in his bones. To make a long story short: he spent most of his life alone, far from civilization and medical help. A hermit indeed. Or, more likely, an exile.”
“I had no idea the pre-Collapse civilization practised exiling people,” said Ellen. “Didn’t they have… what was the word? Err… ‘prisons’ for those who did something wrong?”
“Yes!” Danielle’s face brightened up. Her daughter, not a historian or an archaeologist though she was, still knew a lot about Wrath’s past. “The colonists on Wrath had prisons and other correction facilities for their wrong-doers. Exiling people is a more ancient practice that goes way back, to the dark ages of Earth. It’s a mark of a primitive, budding culture, the kind that early post-Collapse culture was. Remember? It started from a single woman - Zoe Ramune, a geneticist who adapted induced parthenogenesis studies to humans. Her people left no records of this hermit as if he had never existed, but most likely they didn’t just know him, they were the ones who exiled him.”
“The passage you came through on your way here,” Vasily spoke again, “the lava tube. It hadn’t collapsed by itself. Someone had used explosives in the tunnel; the traces can be seen even now. Looks like they’d sealed the man’s way back to the settlement.”
“So let me get it straight,” Ellen chuckled nervously,” Zoe Ramune wasn’t the only survivor of the Collapse. There was also that man. In a way, they were Adam and Eve of this world. But for some reason, she threw him away and decided to risk everything to refine human parthenogenesis instead?”
“That’s right.” Danielle nodded. “We sent his remains to the lab, remember? They studied his genes too. There is no match in the databases. Most likely, the man had no offspring.”
“So, she did say no.” Ellen shook her head. “Wow. Just wow. I bet she had a good reason.”
“She did,” said Vasily, lowering his head in grim approval. “We’ve spent a lot of time studying the man’s creations: dolls, sculptures, diaries. He was a damn monster. I’d say: good riddance.”
That was big, coming from the current “the last man” on the planet. Suddenly, Ellen got it: the thing that was bothering her father so was the shame of having even a little in common with the exile.
“Dad?” she put her hand on his shoulder. “You okay?”
“Yeah, kiddo…” He lifted his head and cracked a smile. “I’m okay. Just had a lot to think about.”
“So what will become of this place after you’ve done with the digging?”
“Well, I think it’ll make an interesting museum, an antipode to Sweet Home Museum.”
“Hmm… And I think comparing the two would make a good story!” Ellen winked.
“That’s what you get when your child is a writer!” laughed Danielle. “Stories everywhere!”
There was warmth and light in their little cabin, so out of place in the heart of Macabre City, cold and ugly, silent and forlorn, where crude statues and uncanny dolls stood their endless watch over the ruins of the exile’s life.
Ellen knew what her new book would be about. Those ruins, they were the image of what this world would have become if Zoe Ramune hadn’t said no.
(October 25, 2021)
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English is not my native language.
If you see an error or a typo, please, tell me. I will fix it.