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The Last Dead Man
This is how I set out to bury the dust of the last dead man.
I made a promise to the last man to die. He was 80, impossibly young. When he whispered in my ear it was slow and halting and the last light of the day was gone.
“Please. Do this for me.”
I had no real relation to him. My mother's aunt's ex-husband. He had his own parents and ancestors and children and grandchildren. They had all disavowed him. They all refused to be there out of fear of what they would see and disgust at his obstinacy.
My curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to talk to the last dying man.
When I got to his apartment the sun was setting, orange and red overhead, with the purple of the horizon interrupted by the city’s great towers. It was immediately clear I wouldn’t get to talk to him. I couldn’t ask why he wasn’t screaming in fear. He looked half-asleep and drugged. Horribly small. Attendees surrounded him and there were machines humming below him. A broadcast drone was perched in the corner. One of the attendees saw me standing in the doorway and beckoned me in.
“Are you the family representative?”
“I suppose so.”
He nodded gravely, then explained that he was the executor of my great-uncle's will. He pointed to a stool next to the dying man.
I sat and studied the imperfections that had accumulated across the man's skin. His sunken face. He had wrinkles covering his entire face. I could hear his breathing. It sounded like recordings from the time of disease shown in schools. I realized that this is one of the sounds of death and felt a kind of fear I hadn’t before.
Eventually everybody was quiet. There was nothing left to say. Then his eyes opened. He turned to me and beckoned with one shaking, dried out hand. Then he made his request, closed his eyes, and died.
I left after the funeral. My first funeral and the last one ever. A man of his faith spoke. He said words preserved from the time when everything died.
The executor gave me the man's dust in a sealed green box. He explained that a city representative could handle it via drone, if I wanted. Part of me wanted to, desperately. But I told him that I had made a promise.
The seal was a simple plastic clasp, the kind you see on designer slips lately. I knew I could open it. But I put it in my pack bag immediately and it fit snugly into one of its pockets. I hurriedly zipped it up, feeling the gravity of the request but wanting it out of sight.
This is how I set out to bury the dust of the last dead man.
Outside of the city I passed fields and fields of the sleep pods. You can tell because nothing will grow on top of them. There were occasional relief outcroppings but the real entrances are deep below the city I left behind me.
The colors were different. Greens and yellows of fields and trees. The air was different. Sharper. The sounds were different. It was so quiet that I could hear the faint hum of my nanoswarm working away on the microbes. It was pleasant. I checked my phone. The radiation levels were no different from the city's.
The road was paved for vehicles but I knew once I got past the pods I would turn onto an old, gravel path.
I thought about how the last dead man had gotten away with it. The old religious exception, his lawyers. Nobody had died in decades, the great enemy defeated. All but for one obstinate old man.
My mind kept wandering. In the old days they did things like this, I thought. Pilgrimages. Processions.
Eventually I saw the gravel path. I stopped suddenly. At the foot of the path was a first carcass.
A carcass is an animal that is dead. I didn't recognize it at first, even though I'd seen them in recordings. But when I got closer, it was unmistakable. It was once a bird. Now there were only bones and feathers and gunk. I walked up to it slowly, like it could reassemble itself and return to life. I knelt beside it. Unable to stop myself, I reached out, barely feeling the shaking in my hand.
I touched it.
My hand leaped back. I felt deep sobs come out of me and I sank back, gasping and crying. I was plagued by the thought that inside the bones, there had been eyes to see the world. There had once been a heart. It had either suffered suddenly and terribly, or slowly and greyly. And all that was left were these scorched-white bones. The bones of my ancestors must look the same. The bones in the cemetery would be the same.
I felt the urge to turn back. To use a drone to bury the dust. To relieve my family. But my promise pulled me forward like a puppeteer.
I was walking more than I had ever walked. No tram (sky or otherwise). Just step after step. My thoughts wandered to my last conversation with my lover.
I don’t get it. You’re going to have no protection outside the bubble.
I'll have my own swarm, my love.
Yes, but your personal one isn't perfect. There's disease in the dirt, in the grass. Don't touch any metal. If you get cut, or bruised, call the chopper early. We can afford it.
I made a promise, you know.
But you can even have the chopper take you there and then turn around home. They really are fast. God, I wish you'd just do that.
In the end, nothing would satisfy her. I left to her weeping.
Later, as the sun sank into my field of view, I saw movement under the glare: A small grey cat. Peering at me out of the wheat beside the road. It must have smelled the food in my pack. It meowed up at me.
I felt a pang of emotion. It might have been the thing that killed the bird. I felt the horror of nature. The little beast staring at me killed to live. It ate flesh every day.
Perhaps it sensed the tumult inside me, because it came close. I let it. It rubbed its head against my pants and purred.
Something came over me. I reached down and scratched behind its ears. It turned towards my hand. Before I could stop myself, I picked it up and held it against my chest. It was warm and it was happy. It kept rubbing its head against my neck.
One emotion dominated the others swirling within me. "I don't want to hurt you", I whispered. "What if I kill you by accident?"
It meowed. Very gently, I let it down. It sat and stared up at me. Remembering what it must want, I opened my bag, found my nutrient crackers, and opened a pack for it. It began to lick them carefully.
I left it there, somewhere anonymous on the gravel and dirt road. But the feeling of its fur stayed on my hands. The sound of its purr lingered in my head.
In the time when everything died, they put the dead in wooden boxes underground in places called cemeteries. The cemetery at the end of the gravel road was long and narrow and green. There is a fake cemetery in the courtyard of the history museum. This one was nothing like the replica. Many of the stones that stand on top of the boxes had broken and most were too weathered to read. It was a place of taunting peace. I couldn’t shake the feeling that all the dead were tilting in their graves to stare at me. I had the urge to break the remaining stones.
As I searched through it for his corner, I thought of the ancestors I will never meet, separated from me by an abyss science can't bridge, the abyss my ancestors thought would stretch forever into the future. My great-grandmother tells me of her own parents, from the time when anything could die. She prays in gratitude to the scientists everyday, that she made it to the time of life.
I found the section his executor had explained, where the man's people were buried. I found the stone above his dirt. I dug out a hole to fit the little box, so much smaller than the sleep pod he could have lived forever in.
I opened the pocket. Horror struck. The clasp had come undone. The man's dust was caught in the creases of the pocket, was slipping out past the zipper, was yanked out and played with by the wind. I instantly rezipped the pocket but the damage was done. The man was split apart.
I sat in the cemetery, fighting off the icy feeling that I had failed in the quest. Opening the pocket again would only make things worse. But I couldn't bury the whole pack bag. I could feel the dead laughing at me.
I shook it off. What matter if the man was split apart? Is that not the nature of things that end, to fall apart? I opened the bag and grabbed a fistful of the man. It felt like coarse flour and it made me think of the fire that had turned the man to dust. I almost dropped it. I cradled it in both hands against my chest. I fell to my knees, then let it spill into the hole.
I turned to grab another handful but there was little left. The wind had carried it away. What had been snared on the pocket lining, I picked out and let the wind take. Then I covered the hole again with its dirt. It was done.
I pulled out the tiny paper the executor had given me. I turned, so that the fading red sun would illuminate the words. I spoke to the ghosts watching me.
Both victor and vanquished are dewdrops
in which flashes of lightning
briefly illuminate the void.
Nothing replied. The earth was silent. I felt its approval in this and, as though drugged, I felt great peace in all things.
I let my repressed exhaustion break through. I laid down, cradled by old humanity. The great gone mass gone to progress, gone before the crown jewel of the city. They no longer laughed at me. Instead, they recognized me as kin.
I felt the grass tickle my cheek. Soon, I felt insects, those tiny death-bound drones, walking over me. Somewhere far, far away, I heard an animal cry.
I awoke only a little later. I saw the stars above me. They were impossibly bright, like in an ancient book. My phone was buzzing. The chopper was asking for confirmation.
I stared up at the stars. They were the same stars old humanity had lived and fought and loved and died under. They felt like my heritage. They felt like my gift in the will of all humanity.
I declined the chopper. I stood and stretched, and bits of dirt fell from me. My arms and the back of my neck itched. But my swarm gave no alert. There was no danger, only sensation.
I began the long trek home. Even with the illumination of the stars, I knew I could fall on the gravel path. I could twist my ankle and die. I could drop and break my phone. It frightened me. But not as it once had.
Later, in the pink sheen of the morning, I returned to the city of permanent lightning, carrying a small, grey cat.
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Both victor and vanquished … by Ôuchi Yoshitaka, translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch