The Last Man in the World Explains All

by Dwight O. Krauss


It was my fault. All mine. No one else’s. Not Cleveland’s or Marebeth’s or Dante’s, just mine.

I have to say that because a paper blew by while I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and wrapped around my leg and, instead of kicking it off irritably as I’d been doing with the millions of others (‘End Of The World!’ banner headlined) blowing down the street, I looked at it. The old accusations were below the fold.

Let me be clear. Not them. Me. They, actually, tried to save everyone.

I remember every detail. Dante saw the flaw first. He was always checking my work right up to the last minute, hoping he’d catch me out. Damned irritating, but his only hope with Marebeth was to show me up. He never could before, but this time... this time: “Jerry,” there was concern in his voice. “I don’t think this is right.”

“What?” I asked.

“The lithium absorption. I think you may have overextended it.” And his eyebrows, two wrestling caterpillars, bunched and roiled as he pulled through the sheets rapidly.

“One minute!” shouted the sergeant reading the countdown.

“Right,” I’d said. “Nice try.” Shut up already, you jealous little jerk.

Marebeth stood beside him, and her non-existent eyebrows roiled in the same buggy way. She traced her fingers down the same line as his but then gasped and her willowy little porcelain hand flew to her mouth. “Jerry! He’s right!” and she looked straight at me and her face went paler, if that was possible.

“What!?” I completely lost my cool. If Marebeth agreed with Mr. Bad Science, then it was time to panic.

“Ten seconds!” the sergeant called.

Cleveland leaped for the bunker door, frantically pulling at the heavy bolt. “Stop the countdown! Stop the countdown!” he shrieked.

Too late.

The world went white and hot. The overwhelming fire of the biggest bomb ever made a new sun over Bikini, and a new cloud over that; and the pressure waves washed over us and then subsided, and generals and admirals all slapped each other’s backs and Alvin called us: “More megatonnage than expected!”

Of course. Dante and Marebeth and Cleveland just stared at me. “You’ve killed us all,” she said quietly.

Not immediately. There was plenty of time to pack up and hide what we knew and act like everything was okay and scurry back to Washington to brief and be briefed and get awards; and all the time we four were watching the weather and demanding plant and animal surveys in ever-widening circles out from the atoll.

“Why are you so worried about that?” one intern laughed one night. I fired him on the spot, and the other interns got back to work, keeping their sniggering little comments to themselves.

We four stood there and read the reports and grew quieter, more depressed with each one.

We stockpiled oxygen, as much as we could, in sealed and hidden bunkers we could access as needed. Stop-gap. Mere extension, we knew. But forty years was better than twenty.

The others stopped blaming me after five years or so. It just wasn’t helping. Marebeth and I were through, of course, but that was the least I deserved. I was guilty. I went over everything after we got back because I couldn’t believe it, just couldn’t, and I figured it was something unanticipated, some unforeseen reaction, like maybe an extra generated neutron. But no. You see, 6 times 6 is 36, not 35. Stupid, stupid, stupid little error. And we all die for it.

Because when you offer a little more hydrogen than necessary to the gods of fire and death and mutation, they greedily accept. And reach for more.

No one else noticed until the big deal about the ozone layer. We spread the story about greenhouse gases, and everyone bought it. Then there was the Amazon die-off, and we said that was due to overharvesting and Bolivian peasants; and everyone bought that, too. But, eventually, someone got suspicious and started looking and grew alarmed and called in a few buddies. And then the alarm spread.

Cleveland and Marebeth and Dante fronted for me, taking blame they shouldn’t have, because I needed time. You’d think forty-four years would be enough, but it wasn’t: the forty-six it actually took was barely adequate.

When the first accusations were leveled, Marebeth phoned, her voice as pale as she still was. “Did you hear what they called me?”

“Yes.” I paused. “Kali.”

She started to cry. “More time,” I pleaded, “just a little more time.” She hung up.

They went into hiding, successfully diverting attention from me. Oh sure, I got interrogated, and there was a lot of suspicion, and I was even in prison for a while; but I laid the blame on them. When they got caught, they played it out. They knew I needed the time, and if I was strung up next to them in front of the U.N. and left there for days while crowds ran by throwing stones and tearing at our dangling feet, then it would all be for nothing.

I attended, of course, to keep up appearances. I stood in the crowd and cheered as they dropped, Marebeth’s eyes searching me out, the blame full in them. I lost a hundred pounds, and my hair fell out. Everyone thought it was from the oxygen changes, but I had plenty of oxygen hidden in my bunker and kept a discreet tankful with me when I went out. It wasn’t that.

Ancient history, now, one you’ll never know. Everything’s ready, and that’s why I’m slogging through the blizzard of last papers and overturned cars and thin, starved, cyanotic skeletons piled on every corner, no longer squeamish as the dried-out birds and worms and maggots crunch under my feet.

I have my last bottle of oxygen: only a half hour left, but that will be enough to start the reactor and fill the grid with thousands of years of power. Thousands of years of life.

I had to start from scratch, of course. We only had the Univacs and the 701 at the beginning, and I had to learn Fortran and experiment with it and rewrite it and reapply it and wait for better systems and better languages. Kilby came along, and Metcalf; then Wozniak and Gates. And the computer languages, the languages.

It just took so much time. I regret that, too.

No matter. In ten minutes, you will be reborn. Seamless. You will go through your day and work and fight and die and marry and have children and they will work and fight and die. It’s all on a simple loop, actually, with so many branches and iterations it will feel like individuality.

I have programmed some interesting events, like a disputed election and an attack on New York and a bizarre couple of wars with Iraq and Iran. Some good things, too, like a manned landing on Mars (coming to you in 2046) and even reception of radio signals from Altair.

You’re going to have a great life. You’re going to have a great world. The memory of what really happened will be gone. As am I. I programmed myself out. I programmed Marebeth and Cleveland and Dante in. They deserve to live. I don’t.

In ten minutes, as soon as I enter the vaults beneath the White House and hit two switches, there you’ll be. And five minutes after that, there I won’t be.

Fitting.


Copyright © 2009 by Dwight O. Krauss

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