The Hermit

I wrote this a while back. Submitted it to Clarkesworld and then AE. Alas, both rejected it. The positive side is that I can now post it here. This is an attempt at writing something more down-beat. It didn’t really come together the way I’d intended though. Let’s just call it an experiment.

There’s a message waiting for me in the com shed. I’d hauled the remaining computers and communication gear there when everyone left. Small flat-panel satellite receiver bolted onto the corrugated metal roof. Still have enough juice for the generator for another year or two. Not sure what I’ll do when that runs out. If I’m still around then.

I pick up my headset and call them back. Reception is good this time of day. The satellite network isn’t too bad, most of the time, but it does have some gaps, and the station isn’t directly overhead at the moment.

“Hey, its our local hermit,” somebody says, answering my call. “Hang on, I’ll go get Zhaan. I think I saw her around here a few minutes ago.” I close my eyes for a while and wait.
“How are you doing down there,” Zhaan says.

I only grunt in response.

“You ever tire of being such a damn martyr? We have an isolation ward up here, you know. Pretty safe.”
“Solitary confinement? No thank you,” I say.
“At least you’d have some human contact,” she responds.
“So what are we doing right now?”
“Will you at least let us drop some supplies for you?” She sighs. Tough job, putting up with me.
“Answer is always going to be no.”
“All right. Call you again in a couple of weeks. If you’re still around.”
“Yeah, if I’m still around. Hey, I’m sending you the data set from sequencing those small plants we were talking about. Will take a few minutes to upload.”
“Thank you. Stay safe, you bloody fool.”

#

There aren’t too many large predators in this part of the world. I suppose that may have been one reason why they picked this spot. Otherwise it must have just been a random roll of the dice or something.

Where I am is right in the middle of a great big continental plain. Hot and dusty in the summer, cold and bone dry in the winter. Short rainy seasons between, or everything would just die of thirst. As it is, the vegetation is mostly the local equivalent of shrubs and small thorn bushes.

The small predators might be a problem once I run out of juice for the generator for the electric fence. We’ll see, if I’m still around then. They couldn’t really get any benefit from eating Earth flesh, but it is possible that they might try.

The smallest ones are something like ferrets, and the biggest ones look like a cross between a jackal and a wallaby, only they can’t jump high enough to get over my fence. I keep a rifle handy anyway, unless I’m in a really foul mood.

The lack of trees is sometimes a problem. I could really use a material like wood. It’s a long way from the local equivalent of a forest though, and I don’t have fuel to waste any more.

I’ve been producing a fibrous material from crushing certain bushes. Something like paper, but more waterproof. Also a sticky resinous gum, which I’ve been using to fill holes in some of the sheds.

I really want to know whose idiotic idea it was to use steel for the buildings.

#

At its peak, there were a few hundred people living here. They’d sent an advance team of suicidally optimistic volunteers to hang around for a year or two, just to make sure the place was relatively safe. Seems like a silly way to do it, in retrospect.

Once they sounded the all-clear, a bunch of us scientific types had come on over. Young families mostly, with a scattering of grey-haired Ă©minence grise to keep everyone in line.

We’d expected to stay for years at the least, or in some cases forever. A whole world to observe and catalogue–this is the pinnacle of a career, a rare, monumental reward in itself. Publications be damned.

I’m not sure where I fit in. Single, a bit older than the youngsters, hardly eminent, a competent but far from outstanding jack of all trades. While I knew my way around both laboratory and field, I’d also spent a fair chunk of time kicking around the world, just surviving.

I guess there’s some humour in that.

#

Three years today. I haven’t made up my mind whether that’s practically yesterday, or pretty much forever.

I visit the graveyard. Nice neat rows of mounds. I dug most of those myself. Of course, I still had fuel for the trench digger then, not that the loose dirt here is terribly hard to move around.

No headstones. I have a digital file of where everyone is, in case anyone ever wants to know. Didn’t have the resources or skill to carve stone. Not too much rock around here in any case.

No caskets either. No wood. Not much point anyway, since the local biota mostly won’t feed on us. One obvious, lethal exception to that rule, of course.

I call the ship. Sometimes I actually do miss having other people around. This might surprise some of the people upstairs.

Guy on duty’s name is Happy. Descriptive. Always wondered if it was causation or correlation. Nice enough fellow, but he rubs me up the wrong way sometimes. What were his parents thinking?

I ask them all to have a drink for me. Ran out of alcohol here two years back. Just as well.

#

We’d thrown a great party about a month before things came apart as the seams. No real reason. Just a celebration of being alive, together, somewhere strange and wonderful.

As usual, I got the job of entertaining the kids. I wonder why that is. Never had any of my own. I did a puppet show. Threw together some silly creations in the fabrication shop. Song and dance routine. Amateur hour. Either they liked it, or there was nothing else to entertain them anyhow.

Afterwards, when the kids had gone to sleep, I grabbed a cold beer, and sat with a bunch of people, just chatting about nothing in particular.

I remember that Zhaan had tapped me lightly on the back of my head with her hand, as she had passed by. “Good job,” was all she had said.

#

Inventory time again. I toss some expired medications in the garbage pile. Since there’s only me, I can probably make things stretch a while longer. I can’t tell how long though. There are some bad stretches, where I just chew through inventory.

The longest expiry dates are about ten years from now. Don’t think I’ll be around then.

Going to need to refine some more ASA. There’s a species of bush around here that is rich in that. I’ve been making a paste with a mild solution of acetylsalicylic acid that does a decent job of fighting back the skin infection.

#

I don’t know what the people upstairs do when I’m not chatting with them. Are they just staring down at me with big telescopes? Do they have robotic probes running around just out of my view? Are they in touch with Earth? I suppose they must be at that. There are occasionally some new people that I don’t know when I call. I don’t remember when I stopped asking.

#

First thing anyone noticed were small itchy patches on their skin. They spread rapidly, big green or grey patches. Unlike terrestrial fungal skin infections though, these had the ability to penetrate deeper than the outer layer of the dermis, eating the very flesh away from those that it colonized.

It jumped readily from person to person. As far as we’ve been able to tell, it can live for hours on a wide variety of surfaces, and the people that it infects spread its spores far and often.

In its final stages, the infection ate away the organs and brain of those poor people. The entire process seldom lasted longer than a couple of days. Nothing we threw at it then worked.

We’ve never figured out why it can live on my skin, but somehow doesn’t kill me.

#

I spend a few hours patching up the few buildings that I still use. I push resin into the rusty spots with a trowel, and then plaster a few layers of my fibrous creation on top. Not much structural strength, but it keeps out the wind, and I’m hoping it staves off the rust for a while longer.

I really should use some of the remaining fuel reserves and pull down some of the more rickety structures with the bulldozer. There’s a few that are starting to look like they may fall over. Its painful having to see some of them anyhow. Particularly the school. There’s a playground in front, although the swings have rusted to the point where they’re no longer upright.

Maybe I can reduce the area enclosed by the electric fence, and save some juice that way?

#

I call Zhaan. I don’t greet her, I just speak. “Remember the party? You know, right before?”
“People don’t usually forget stuff like that,” she says.

Things left unsaid–normal people. I don’t know what I am any more. All the social niceties are long gone. I still understand interpersonal stuff though. My head functions perfectly well when I want it to.

“I remember you entertaining the kids,” she says after a few moments. “That was the last time I remember you singing.”
“Its been a while. I got rusty.”
“Like learning to ride a bike. You should sing more. You know, people stuff. Things others can relate to.”
“Don’t preach,” I say, and click off.

#

They had pulled anyone still healthy upstairs in a hurry, and stuck them in quarantine for a few weeks, just to make sure.

The rot spreads quickly though. I don’t think anyone other than me lasted more than a few days. Or really wanted to, at that point. Many of them had died screaming, our feeble palliative measures not really working at the end.

If it had spread even a mite faster, I don’t know if anyone would have survived. As it was, only half of the colonists made it back to the orbital station.

I think most have them have gone back to Earth now. There’s around fifty people hanging about upstairs, doing whatever it is that they do. And there’s me, sitting down here, marking time.

#

I grab some tomatoes from the greenhouse in a bucket. The greenhouse isn’t in great shape these days, but I’m able to grow enough vegetables for one person.

Canned food. Still a few year’s supply remaining. Check. Fresh vegetables. Tomatoes, some peppers, a cucumber or two. Check. Grab some sun once in a while for a bit of Vitamin D. Don’t want to get rickets or something stupid like that. Got better things to die of, after all. The sun seems to be good for fighting back the skin infection, anyhow. Check and check.

I really should ask Zhaan if I’m missing something from my diet. She’s bugged me about this on occasion, but I always brush her off.

#

“Why don’t you let us bring you up?” she asks me.
“You know why. You watched everyone die, just like I did. It wasn’t a pleasant way to go.”
“I want you to think about this,” she says. “Why are you still alive then?”
“How should I know? I’m not an immunologist. Ask one of your medical experts.”
“What if what you have is something different?”
“You willing to take that risk? Even if I come upstairs, they’ll never let me back to Earth anyhow. So you’ll have a whole crew of support people for one person in an isolation chamber in orbit. If you’re really unlucky, they may quarantine the whole system, just in case, and you’ll all be stuck here for nothing. Just let me live my time out here. At least I’m getting some useful work done.” I don’t think I’ve said that much at one time in years.
“Dammit. You stupid, stubborn idiot. I don’t understand why you won’t just listen to me,” she says. This time she hangs up on me.

#

One of the nice things about being the last person on the planet is the night-time view. It’s a warm evening, so I sit on an old plastic lawn-chair on the porch outside my hut, and watch the stars.

A quick bright light describes an arc across the sky. One of the communication satellites, most likely.

I feel like singing for some odd reason. Zhaan is right, I should do that. Why not? I’m here all on my own. Everywhere on the planet is just the same as singing in the shower.

Another bright light, this time slower and larger, transits the sky. I wave up at the only other humans in thirty parsecs, and just let ‘er rip.